HC Deb 23 March 1967 vol 743 cc1972-87

2.25 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I think that every Minister during the course of his career at the Department of Education and Science has at some time or other acknowledged the prime importance of school books. Indeed, one of the Department's own most recent publications gives its approval to the dictum: The greatest benefit to learners after the master is a good library. But when it comes to expenditure, anyone who believed that textbooks received a financial status in educational expenditure that compared with the lip-service which we normally pay them would be very wide of the mark. Less than 1 per cent. of our national educational budget is devoted to books. We spend 12 times as much on school meals as we do on school books, and although we constantly talk about the importance of science in the schools we spend far more of our educational budget on cabbage and brussels sprouts than on scientific books.

I quickly agree that the situation has improved in recent years. Between 1955 and 1966, the last year for which figures are available, expenditure on school books quadrupled. But there are still tremendous variations between areas. As the magazine New Society pointed out recently: The provision of school books and equipment is the most local and variable aspect of State education … variations from area to area are not only wide but are spread unevenly over the scale of excellence from reasonable to horrid. As the Plowden Committee, whose Report we recently discussed, said in paragraph 1112: There is a wide disparity between local authorities. In some areas allowances are so low that the educational opportunities of the children are impoverished. In one area, for example, the capitation allowance for infant and nursery schools is 23s. from which consumable materials, books, including library books, apparatus and equipment must be bought. Help is given for the purchase of physical education equipment and large toys, but not automatically, and parents are not encouraged to help raise money. Not surprisingly, this authority in 1961–62 fell short by one third of what the Publishers Association in their Report on expenditure on books in maintained schools, which was endorsed by the Association of Education Committees, considered to be a reasonable rather than a good level of expenditure on books. This is not an isolated example. Head teachers in such areas need to be exceptionally enterprising and skilled in improvisation if their schools are to be even adequately equipped. Not all head teachers used their initiative in this way. Some in all areas persistently fail to spend their allowance even when the allowance is not generous and many believe that there is merit in practising such an economy. In fact, the present situation is rather worse than the Plowden Committee has indicated. Obviously, the price of books like everything else, has been going up fairly steadily in recent years, and there is no real prospect of this trend being halted or reversed. It has been estimated by the publishing trade that between 1958 and 1964 book prices increased by 33 per cent. Text book prices went up by rather less. But it was plain that the old guideline of expenditure on textbooks approved by the Association of Education Committees in 1961 was out of date.

In 1964 a joint study group, under Sir William Alexander, of the Association of Education Committees, and Mr. Morpurgo, reviewed the situation in view of the increased cost of books, and the many new developments in printing and visual aids, and in our concept of using books in schools. On 25th March, 1965, the Association issued its new guidelines. No one could say that it took an extravagant stand.

It suggested that in primary schools a good or a generous authority would spend 26s. 6d. per pupil per year on books, while the minimum acceptable allowance would be 21s. 6d., on books alone. In secondary schools with pupils aged up to 16, the standard for books alone would again be 45s. and 40s. respectively. The Association went on to say: In making these recommendations we think it important to draw the attention of the education committees to the relatively small proportion of the total expenditure on the educational service which is involved under this heading. It seems to us vitally important to recognise that the very large expenditure incurred in the provision of buildings and major equipment, and the salaries of teachers, may well not secure its full return unless there is an adequate expenditure on books and stationery which are the essential instruments for education. The recommendations which we now make have a very limited effect on the total expenditure on the education service, and we believe would yield very adequate returns in the improved efficiency of the schools. The great majority of education committees certainly try to follow these recommendations. The latest figures produced by the Institute of Municipal Treasurers covering 1965–66 show, unfortunately, that in my own Borough of Bromley it has not quite reached a reasonable standard. It shows that the Borough of Southampton, in which you have a considerable interest, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pray in aid Mr. Speaker, especially on matters of education, when he might be tempted.

Mr. Goodhart

I will pass rapidly from Southampton, noting with regret that it has not yet reached the standard of the Association of Education Committees for primary schools. The record of some authorities is frankly disgraceful. There are four local education authorities, Barnsley, Swansea and the Greater London Boroughs of Ealing and Redbridge, which in 1965–66 have been spending less than half the approved reasonable standard on primary and secondary schools.

Maybe these authorities are too incompetent to fill in the returns properly, but it certainly looks as though Barnsley, Swansea, Ealing and Redbridge are imposing unnecessary handicaps on the children in their care. The Borough of Ealing's education committee has recently been involved in acrimonious controversy and correspondence over secondary reorganisation. It was argued that it was trying to cheat the parents, and it certainly looks as though it is trying to cheat the children.

The Ealing education committee has the worst record in the country on this count. What do the Government intend to do? The Plowden Committee made three recommendations. The first was that local education committees should take steps to remove the inequalities which it described and to bring up all allowances to the average figure, without reducing the more generous allowances. It pointed out that it would cost between £500,000 and £1 million a year. Secondly, it recommended that the schools with special difficulties should have extra allowances. Thirdly, it said that although bulk buying of some items may be sensible head teachers should be given more freedom in spending.

I find these recommendations disappointing, because they merely point to desirable ends without saying how they should be achieved. The Government should act swiftly to increase the allowances made for books and equipment in the priority areas. For instance, many of the areas plainly contain a high concentration of immigrant children. A whole series of new textbooks has recently been produced to help these children and this could be an important step forward. Everyone will be frustrated however if the priority areas cannot afford the new series. This is really a matter of encouraging the laggards. Here the main weapon must be the inspectorate. The inspectorate takes account of the supply of school books in assessing a school's efficiency but, as one authority remarked to me a few days ago, this is largely done by ear and eye. Her Majesty's Inspectorate should be encouraged to look at and report on the supply of books in considerably more precise terms than appears to be the case.

The other main weapon against the laggards should be publicity and public condemnation. This is one reason why I have referred to the four authorities which have not even come half way to a reasonable standard. We need better statistics here, and the Government should take responsibility for the supply of them. Why should it be left to the Institute of Municipal Treasurers to prepare the only relevant statistics for England and Wales?

When we come to deal with Scotland and Northern Ireland we find that there are no statistics readily available. I cannot understand why this should be so. When I used to press in the early 1960s for the Government to acquire and distribute more information on this subject, Ministers, from my own party I am afraid, used to try to pretend that I was asking for a vast range of complex information. The information needed is really quite simple. If the Minister would care to discuss the matter with experts such as Mr. Morpurgo, she would find that it could be arranged very simply indeed.

In those days, a number of hon. Members opposite who have now become Ministers used to support my plea that there should be a far more positive approach by the Government and more Governmental responsibility for collecting and spreading information. They have now been Ministers for almost 30 months, but nothing has so far happened in this respect.

There are no profound ideological or partisan splits on this issue, but there is one point which is worth noting. In every other respect the discrepancy between State school and private school spending is not so much. In the purchase of food or buildings or the payment of the salaries of teachers, the discrepancy between the private and the public sector is not all that large, because the private sector cannot afford it. But there is a tremendous discrepancy between the private and the State sector in spending on books.

There is also a tremendous discrepancy between different public and different preparatory schools. The record of bad public and bad "prep" schools is very bad, but a recent survey of public school expenditure on books showed that on average it is four times as large as the comparable expenditure in local grammar schools and that some public schools spend nine times as much on books as do local grammar schools. In "prep" schools the expenditure on books on average will be four times as great as it is in State primary schools. Perhaps those who prattle on about the unfairness of having a private sector in education would do well to ponder those figures, because it would not take long to eliminate the glaring discrepancy between State and private education.

Will the money be forthcoming? Clearly, it will not. The Minister must know that, unfortunately, there is profound anxiety about the Government's attitude in this respect. There is a feeling that they will acquiesce in an economic squeeze on the supply of hooks and equipment. As Sir Ronald Gould said in a letter to The Times this morning: Already the local authorities are having to make cuts in their spendings on equipment, for the capitation allowance is one of the items of educational expenditure which they can cut back. He went on to say: If the Government are serious about increasing productivity and using our scarce teaching resources to the fullest extent possible, then they must increase the volume of books and teaching aids available. This brief Adjournment debate gives the Minister a chance to allay these genuine fears about the Government's attitude and to tell the House what action the Government propose to take to prevent the economic squeeze from falling on this vital sector of education.

Quite rightly, we spend hundreds of millions of pounds on our teachers. If we doubled that sum overnight, we could not guarantee that every child in the country would have a good teacher. But a comparatively small sum would ensure that within the next few months every child in the country could have decent textbooks.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I must confess to a little sympathy with what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) has said about the activities of some of us when we were on the Opposition benches. Part of my reason for speaking this afternoon is that I remember very well trying to chide the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) on this and perhaps closely related subjects, and that I think that that process should be continued.

I was also sensitive to what the hon. Gentleman said about Scottish and Irish statistics. Certainly, in Scotland we want to know why there are these variations between local authorities. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has no responsibility, but I should like her to explain, or to give the Ministry's thinking about, why these variations exist. In a previous incarnation, I was the director of studies on a ship's school and in that capacity I came into contact with many teachers and education officers from various authorities throughout Britain, and I found that the variations were extremely marked. It was with some justice that teachers used to complain that the attitude of their local education authorities was reflected in the schools, for this is an important subject.

I have a very simple and deep belief that pupils should be encouraged in the habits of book ownership. Philosophically, one might not be too keen on the idea of possession, but in the matter of books possession is extremely important and it is important to inculcate the habits of possession when pupils are young. I do not want to be unrealistic, but in future, perhaps when the financial situation is a little eased, the Ministry might begin to think about whether it would be possible to allow pupils, say over 16, who are staying on at school a certain form of book token allowance, of perhaps a very modest sum to start with, so as to get them into the habit of book ownership. Perhaps the Ministry might think about the realism or otherwise of such a project.

The next matter is the value of school books in relation to the work of the Ministry of Overseas Development. I am very glad to note the good things which the Government are doing for the Teachers' Training College at Singapore and the help which we are giving to Malaysia in this matter. I hope that it will be noted and encouraged and that some of the help which we give will be in the form of simple school text books. This is one way in which we can meaningfully contribute to the stability of South-East Asia in a major way.

My third subject is that of sixth-form libraries. As one whose main interest in the House is science and technology, as I go around I see that books suitable and necessary to sixth form pupils are nowadays becoming ever more expensive at a fantastic rate. Whereas many pupils could previously afford the books necessary to them, that is no longer so, because of the rise in the price of books. It is, therefore, all the more important that libraries in schools where pupils stay on to 18 should be properly provided.

I should like to know whether my hon. Friend conceives this to be as serious a problem as I do. What is being done to purchase for school libraries these highly expensive, though necessary, scientific textbooks? Could some kind of bulk ordering arrangement be worked out with publishers, so that before putting a price tag on a particular volume, they would have a guarantee that it would have a certain sale? My hon. Friend will agree that in this matter the economies of scale are very important.

So, too, as I know as one who has undertaken the burdens of authorship, are the rights of authors. In this country, authors, even those of school textbooks who are probably better off than the authors of other books, are not sufficiently safeguarded. Their work is not properly rewarded.

Finally, if this country goes into a European Common Market and a European Community, there will be scope for a great many text books of a rather new kind. I ask my hon. Friend whether the Department have given any thought to this possibility and whether she considers it her place to do so.

2.51 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) for raising this important subject and for doing so by no means for the first time.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) properly pointed out that before now I have been on the Government Bench replying to a debate on this subject. Since those days I have a double interest to declare, because I am a part-time educational publisher in connection with Penguin books and also an officer of the National Book League.

My hon. Friend has done the House a service and I will endorse what he said about the importance of school books under a number of separate heads. As he rightly said, this subject has a relevance to the recommendations of the Plowden Report. If we believe that the right approach to primary education is to entice children into learning, and if we are to lay a high value on the virtues of discovery as a part of learning, then textbooks clearly play a very important part in the primary school. When judging a primary school or a primary class, two safe criteria are the standard of art work in the class and the arrangement and quality of the books provided.

When we come to the secondary school, the question of textbooks rightly takes many new forms. We have the generality of the school library books and the possibility of a wide range of choice. Still more important, as the hon. Member for West Lothian said, there is the problem of the books needed for sixth-form education, and in that respect I wholeheartedly agree with what he said. Knowledge is already doubling every 10 years, and by the 1970's it may be doubling at an even faster rate. New editions of expensive textbooks are being brought out all the time. This must be a great problem for any school capitation allowance. The cost and number of textbooks which are essential these days to the school library are serious problems.

I am interested in the hon. Member's suggestion that a certain measure of bulk ordering might be possible. I will certainly take note of that suggestion in connection with my interests as a publisher.

One of the points which has struck me most in the last year or so has been the problem for publishers of small orders all the time—of driblets of orders. By the same token, the possibility of a bulk order affecting a large number of schools and authorities is certainly a matter to which the publishers, as well as the Government, ought to pay attention.

I feel very strongly, and my hon. Friend I know will agree, that whereas there may be some activities of Government—we mention them some times in our debates—which ought to wither away as wealth increases in the country, on the other hand, when there is some essential activity to be performed by a public authority, it ought to be performed as well as possible. I am flatly opposed to the idea that in the public sector of education any service which is performed should be performed meanly. That is totally wrong. Where some service can properly wither away, let it wither away. But if a service is to be performed, let it be performed as well as possible. I agree with my hon. Friend in drawing a comparison between a number of authorities and the best of our independent schools. I am not one of those who wish to see any essential part of the service performed less well and less generously in the public sector than in the private sector.

Having said something about the objectives, let me say a word about means. This is a serious problem. The rate support grant and the basis of calculation for it have made the whole subject more difficult. The essential point of Sir Ronald Gould's letter, to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention, is that if we cut down the relevant expenditure of local authorities, they are bound to cut what can be cut. No authority can cut down on teachers' salaries. Authorities are bound to cut down where they can, and unfortunately school books are apt to suffer. I also agree with those who ask why there is such a very great variation between authorities. That is a point which ought to be investigated by the Ministry, although we should not underrate what is done by Her Majesty's Inspectors. Over the country as a whole, the inspectors do very fine work in trying to bring the standards of authorities up to the level of the best, and it would be unfair to appear to be critical of the inspectorate. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly greater variations than seem to be justified.

I am glad that the hon. Member for West Lothian talked about the importance of encouraging book ownership. I am equally glad that he mentioned in the context of the debate the developing countries. Having visited a number of these countries, I know that the demand for the best of our books is a demand which we should never forget. Publishers have a notable responsibility to be responsive to new demands and new types of situation.

This is a subject on which public opinion ought to be roused, and if this three-quarters-of-an-hour debate today, drawing attention to the subject, will increase local pressure on local authorities to improve their standards, I am glad. I therefore end as I began by offering thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham for having performed such a useful purpose in raising this topic.

2.57 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

May I begin by echoing the thanks to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) which have been expressed on both sides of the House for raising this question. In view of the fact that only last week I said that I thought that the attendance in the House for the Plowden debate could have been better, perhaps it is fair to say this afternoon that the attendance is quite remarkable for Easter Thursday at this time of the day. I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite for being present and contributing to the debate.

When I saw the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) coming to listen to the debate, I was struck by the thought Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose. I hope that I may be excused that short incursion into a foreign language. In any case, I said it very quickly. In 1959, when the hon. Member for Beckenham raised the same question, the right hon. Member for Handsworth, replying, said, It is not easy for my right hon. Friend to get a really clear and reliable idea of the scale on which books are provided."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1959; Vol. 610, c. 278.] I had a feeling that I might be repeating the same words this afternoon, but I thought that that might be to underline the point a little too strongly and I therefore will not repeat that word for word. It is fair to say that we still do not know in detail the precise statistics for expenditure on books, as distinct from other sorts of equipment, and I hope that we shall give careful consideration to obtaining rather clearer statistics from local education authorities on this matter.

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Beckenham, next, for his fairness in pointing to the very considerable increase in expenditure in the past 10 years. I share his view that it is still not sufficient, but I will come to that in a moment.

May I look first at the remarks made with his usual wide-ranging imagination by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). In the course of a very brief speech he managed to move around a good deal of the world. I will comment on one or two of the points which he made. The right hon. Member for Handsworth referred to the export of books. Although this is not strictly a matter for my Department, I should like to underline the importance of this matter and of the work which is being done very interestingly in a number of universities and institutes of education in such matters as the teaching of English as a second language and development studies of a kind which relate text books very closely to the experience of those countries. I should like to follow up the points which my hon. Friend made about bulk buying by pointing out that this is already done where consortia of local authorities get together, but I have no doubt that it could be taken further with very great benefit to the costing of books supplied.

The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman made a point about sixth form libraries. At present, under the school building regulations, no secondary school can be built without a library. When a secondary school is remodelled or extended, invariably it has to have library accommodation built into it if it does not already have it. This in part goes back to the fact that we have a legacy of very old schools which do not have adequate library accommodation and a few of which do not have any library accommodation at all. The school building regulations make it impossible for a school on which building work is being done to continue at secondary level without library accommodation being provided.

What is encouraging is the situation in primary schools. A generation or so ago, as the Plowden Report points out in paragraph 591, there was no library accommodation at all in primary schools. Since the war we have seen increasingly the provision of library and book spaces in primary schools. Provision is growing all the time, although there is not as yet any obligation on primary schools to provide library accommodation. One of the encouraging things is that many primary schools are going in for book displays and classroom libraries which give very young children the experience and understanding of what it is to borrow and read books and to gain some respect for them.

I wish to say a word or two about the encouragement which my Department is able to give to local education authorities in the supply of books. I should begin by repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian said, namely, that this is fundamentally the responsibility of the local education authorities. Nevertheless, we give a good deal of encouragement. When one of Her Majesty's Inspectors visits a school, books and book supplies are one of the things which he or she is asked to consider specifically and a report dealing with the school invariably has a section on the provision of books.

Furthermore, the Association of Education Committees has underlined its encouragement to local education authorities to follow the practices of the better authorities. I should like to repeat a phrase used in the same Report from which he quoted in which the Association said: It seems to us vitally important to recognise that the very large expenditure incurred in the provision of buildings and major equip-men, and in the salaries of teachers, may well not secure its full return unless there is an adequate expenditure on books and stationery, which are the essential instruments of education. I would wish to underline that.

I should like to say in passing that a Report on Education issued in February, 1967 dealt at some length with public libraries and the inter-relationship between school and public libraries. We are, therefore, very much aware of this matter. We also also giving guidance on the ways in which school libraries are built up and ways in which books should be supplied.

I deal now with the question of finance. Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said, the figures are rather out of date. In 1964–65, £9,203,962 was spent on the provision of books. But, in addition, there was some loan expenditure for initial allowances to libraries which can be paid for either by loan account or by expenditure out of revenue, as the local education authority chooses.

The right hon. Member for Hands-worth referred specifically to the rate support grant and suggested, as one of his hon. Friends suggested at Question Time not long ago, that it might limit expenditure on books. I do not accept this, and I should like for a few moments to go into a little detail.

In 1965–66 the expenditure by all local education authorities on primary and secondary schools, apart from teachers' salaries, amounted to £186 million. The estimates for 1967–68 for this same type of expenditure, exclusive of salaries, have been put at £203 million and for 1968–69 at £214 million. This allows for an increase over those two years—that is, actual expenditure in 1965–66 and estimated expenditure in 1967–68—of just over 9 per cent., or approximately slightly under 5 per cent. overall in each year; or, to put it in another way, allowing for the increase in the number of pupils, 2½ per cent. per pupil per year. This compares not only favourably but well with expenditure of the same kind if we go back some years to the situation which obtained in the late 1950s.

Sir E. Boyle

If I remember rightly, the National Plan indicated that recent figures showed that each year we spent 2½ per cent. more in real terms per primary pupil and 5 per cent. per secondary pupil. Therefore, 2½ per cent. more overall suggests some slowing-down in real terms on extra expenditure per pupil per year compared with the period immediately before the years which the hon. Lady has quoted.

Mrs. Williams

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman implied that the rate support grant was reducing the expenditure in this respect. I would strongly disagree with that and simply draw his attention to the fact that the credit squeeze has had some effect on this type of local education authority expenditure, but that we should be rapidly climbing Out of this situation next year and the year after.

On the question of variations between authorities, I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham will not mind too much if I have a little game, too, since he referred to one or two local education authorities with particularly poor records. I would not wish to labour any point which might come close to you, Mr. Speaker, but perhaps I will be permitted to come a little closer to the hon. Gentleman, not so much by referring to his own constituency, but by pointing out the very sharp difference between expenditure in the Outer London Boroughs and expenditure in the Inner London Education Authority.

In the Inner London Education Authority, expenditure on secondary school books is over 50 per cent. more than it is in the Outer London Boroughs. Expenditure in respect of primary children in the Inner London Education Authority is over 25 per cent. more than it is in the Outer London Boroughs. My hon. Friends will draw certain conclusions from that.

Mr. Goodhart

Would not the hon. Lady agree that in respect of primary school children the Inner London Education Authority does not come up to a reasonable standard?

Mrs. Williams

The Inner London Education Authority is very far ahead of the Outer London Boroughs. It is, therefore, only fair to say that there has been some deterioration in expenditure—

Mr. Goodhart

Because of Ealing and Redbridge alone.

Mrs. Williams

One can look around and say that the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is not what it might be.

I come now to the Plowden Report. The question of extra books in educational priority areas will have to be discussed between my right hon. Friend and the local education authorities. They have been asked to comment on this matter and on other points. The same goes for inequalities in allowances. A lot has been done already about giving extra help to schools with special difficulties. Most local education authorities of which we have knowledge are generous in their treatment of authorities which have either language problems or problems concerned with the arrival of immigrant children who may not be used to books being readily supplied in the countries from which they came or schools in areas where there is heavy wear and tear on books. Although one would obviously wish to see this go further, there has been additional help given to schools with special difficulties.

On the point about freedom in spending, it is fair to say that the best local education authorities give the maximum freedom to heads for the expenditure within their allowances, but we would wish to see it extended to all heads and the best possible advice made available to them by public libraries and others.

I now say a few words about the approach to textbooks and alterations in textbooks. The right hon. Member for Handsworth referred to some of the recent developments in textbooks. These are obviously exciting in respect of the work being done in modern mathematics textbooks, the work being increasingly done in language textbooks, and the work being done particularly for immigrant children in teaching English as a second language and by means of symbols and other things immediately familiar to them. The way in which textbooks are catching the interest of children means that children can be given the habit of reading and learning from books in the schools. It is worth underlining the point forcibly made in the Plowden Report that it is not purely a question of school libraries or public libraries, important as these are.

The Plowden Report indicated clearly that the kind of cultural deprivation which goes on when a family has few, if any, books in the home is also an important aspect of a child's capacity to gain from the education offered to it. I conclude, therefore, by saying that beyond school and public libraries, expenditure on books by parents who wish the best for their children is an extremely useful contribution to the educational process.