HC Deb 05 July 1968 vol 767 cc1972-80

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)

I wish to raise the subject of the seriousness of the unsatisfactory situation concerning secondary education in the London Borough of Ealing. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

I am disappointed to some extent that my hon. Friend's colleague in the Department of Education and Science is not present to reply to the debate. In 1967, the annual conference of the Labour Party, at Scarborough, passed a resolution asking for legislation on comprehensive school development, if necessary, at the request of her colleague, the Minister of State, whose specific responsibilities included the comprehensive reorganisation programme.

On that occasion, the Minister of State said that she was speaking on behalf of the national executive committee of the party, and went on to say: I want to say quite categorically on behalf of the Government that …if local authorities refuse to comply with requests to change to a non-selective system, or delay unreasonably, then I give you my pledge that the Government will not hesitate to legislate. I want to show that the situation in the Borough of Ealing—more especially the Southall end, which comprises a great deal of my constituency—is, quite apart from what might be happening in other parts of the country, a good enough reason for the remarks made by my right hon. Friend. It is not necessary to point out to my hon. Friend the urgent need to develop and expand the major sector of our education system as it affects the bulk of our children and young people.

The idea of national expansion of comprehensive schooling, by new building and by the adaptation of existing secondary schools, has been with us for a long time. It has occasioned animated discussion, but, as we all know, support for comprehensive schools goes far wider than narrow circles of Socialist thought. Nowadays, it is more and more difficult to find a voice raised in support of the barbarous practice of the 11-plus examination as a means of sorting out children for differing educational requirements. Yet we still have this antiquated selection hangover of secondary modern and grammar schools. Such is the case over most of the area within the Borough of Ealing which includes my constituency of Southall and also Hanwell.

The purpose of this debate is to bring to the Floor of the House and to the attention of my hon. and right hon. Friends a story of party political strife which has quite deliberately and, I maintain, cruelly become the vehicle for ob- structing comprehensive advance affecting hundreds of children in my constituency. It confirms my view that the main fabric of Tory support rests on a prop of social snobbery which is shored up by an almost apartheid system of schooling long overdue for extinction.

If this is not so, why do local Tories in Ealing act in such a manner. A few local parents forming an association to obstruct progress do not seem to realise that they look foolish to far more parents in the district. It is significant that they have made no approaches to the hon. Member for Southall at any stage of their activities.

As I indicated in a recent Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the political party now controlling the Ealing Borough has wantonly suspended the comprehensive scheme for Southall. It cannot possibly have any excuses for so doing. Ealing is comprised of the former boroughs of Acton, Ealing and Southall—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. We cannot discuss something for which the local authority has responsibility. The hon. Gentleman must deal with Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Bidwell

I wanted lightly to touch upon some of the aspects to show the background of feeling in this matter in my locality, and I shall find it difficult to do so within the terms of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, because it has to do with the history of London government reorganisation and the feeling of the people in Southall, in particular, who are not now part of the whole borough, but have become part of an enormous conurbation. Their feelings are that the Government are not sufficiently mindful of these matters.

I wanted to quote from a recent speech of a member of the Ealing Borough Council so that my hon. Friend would be fully conversant with what is going on. All the plans have been made for the development of comprehensive schooling in Southall and all the arrangements for the changeover have been made. Head teachers and heads of departments have already been appointed at increased salaries. That is why it is all the more mystifying to local people to know why, if not necessarily within the law as it stands, my right hon. Friend has not spoken out more sharply.

This is bound to lead to waste of teaching and equipment resources, which are geared to get under way along with the reorganisation. Already, this has been successful in Acton over the last two years. There were mixed feelings about another part of the borough and there has been some suggestion and counter-suggestion locally and to my hon. Friend's Department, all of which, I think, she is fully aware of. But whatever one may feel about that—my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) is here to supplement it—there is a deeply-engrained feeling at my end of the division. Children do not yet know to what schools they will be going.

In conclusion, because of the shortage of time, I will add only that the Secretary of State should speak out sharply about what is happening in Southall and elsewhere, especially if, as I believe, this is part of a pattern of reactionary Toryism. I only ask that the Government's leading members should break away from what is apparently a posture of despair, and fight the Tory leaders. There is no surer way of unifying the Labour movement and there will be no shortage of followers for such a cause.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

I regret that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who should have been here to answer the debate, is not here, but I express my thanks and appreciation to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, since it would be wrong to vent my wrath on such a charming person.

This is the siutation. For three years, the formerly Labour-controlled borough of Ealing's education department strove to evolve a scheme of comprehensive education. It involved a great deal of time. Parents and school teachers were all taken into the consideration and a sub-committee worked for two years on proposals which were then submitted to the Department of Education and Science. The Department was not happy and sent them back with recommendations, which were absorbed into a second scheme. This was also submitted to the Depart- ment, which again found that it could not accept it.

This shows that the former education committee took cognisance of every possible aspect, from parents to the Ministry, to try to evolve a scheme which would be acceptable to all and, what is more, one which offered efficient education for the children themselves, who are the most important people involved. After the local elections, these three years have been criticised as a process of rushing and arriving at conclusions far too quickly, yet the new Conservative-controlled local authority, within virtually a few moments, firmly decided to to abolish the scheme already prepared by the former authority's education department, and endorsed by the council.

It was inevitable that, in such a situation, bringing about a comprehensive scheme, would have to be phased and that it was easier to intoduce it first in Southall and Acton, and then right through Ealing. The gravamen of my complaint is this. I must not be tempted to go into the whole history.

The phased part of the comprehensive scheme existed almost before the introduction of the major scheme. As that would be the first part to be introduced, all that was required in the way of administration had been carried out. Parents had been circularised by the local authority asking them to indicate which school they wished their children to attend. Very many had opted for their children to go to what would be the new comprehensive school.

The parents are now in the dilemma that they are told by the new authority that the school for which they opted will never exist. While I can understand that in her reply my hon. Friend may say that she has no authority to intervene—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If she has no authority, then the debate must stop.

Mr. Molloy

I anticipated that she might say so and I was about to say that, if she were to follow that line, the debate would have been a complete waste of time. I hope that I am wrong in my anticipation.

I am asking my hon. Friend to agree that there is a grave danger that the future education of many children will be impaired simply because of a spiteful. political, doctrinaire, rash action by the new authority in Ealing. I believe that such circumstances call for the Minister to intervene to bring back sanity to the agenda—sanity which has departed since the Conservatives took control in the London Borough of Ealing.

4.17 p.m.

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

First, I must apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for her absolutely unavoidable absence this afternoon. I know that she would wish this apology to be conveyed not only to the House in general but, in particular, to my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) and Southall (Mr. Bidwell). I hope that they will accept that apology in the spirit in which it is offered.

I am not wholly unfamiliar with the early stages of the contorted story of comprehensive reorganisation in the Borough of Ealing. It feels as though I am being taken back, I cannot say to an old friend, but at least to an old relation, when I reply to the debate.

Let me, first, take the central difficulty—the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North. I will come in a moment to the other issues. I believe that the previous local authority did all that they possibly could to produce a comprehensive scheme which would be acceptable. The difficulty did not arise from a lack of will or a lack of intention. It arose from one of the most difficult building and accommodation problems which existed anywhere in Britain in terms of comprehensive reorganisation.

The authority first put forward a proposal which involved schools running from 11 to 16 years of age, followed by sixth-form colleges. In our view, educationally we could not sustain a programme for such a scheme because the schools for the junior groups would have been too small for comprehensive purposes. The then authority came back, after a great deal of thought, with a scheme which, in principle at least, would have been acceptable.

Unfortunately, for it to be attained within a reasonable period, it depended upon a very large sum of money for a building programme—a sum which was estimated by the local authority to be just under £500,000 and which the Department for Education and Science estimated at very nearly twice that amount. Because there was no prospect in the very short term of such a sum being made available for a borough where the problems related to improvement and change and not to an influx of new population, and in a situation in which we had a problem in meeting the need for an increasing building programme, we could not allocate to Ealing resources of that kind. No one has followed this story more vigorously than has my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North. He knows that we were unable to agree, consequently, to the scheme starting, as the authority wished, in September, 1968.

We now have a different situation, one in which no comprehensive schemes have been brought forward and nobody at the moment is putting forward such a scheme, although we hope that a scheme will be brought forward shortly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southall pointed out, this creates difficulties for Southall, in particular, because a number of parents, I suspect rather misguidedly —but people are always frightened of circumstances which they neither know nor understand—opted for grammar schools in Ealing.

The result was that the number of form entries in Southall for the schools that existed was rather smaller than the capacity of these schools. Particularly in the case of the grammar-technical school, the number of youngsters who have been selected by the 11-plus is well below capacity to deal with them. On the other hand, the number of children who would be going to the secondary modern schools, the two combined, is rather greater than the capacity of those two schools.

We hope that the authority might give consideration to making a rather different division; in such a way that schools should not be side by side, one group over capacity and the other group under capacity—this for reasons which, to be honest, might be thought to be rather dogmatic. Nevertheless, I hold the view of my hon. Friend that the sensible solution to these problems is to try to find as quickly as possible a comprehensive scheme for the two areas which are not yet comprehensive.

It is difficult to run an educationally mixed economy when Acton is comprehensive and the other two areas remain selective. The fact is that one either gets parents opting for the comprehensive scheme and pulling out of the secondary modern school or, alternatively, opting for grammar schools and, therefore, having no true momentum in the comprehensive system.

I say to the parents of Ealing Borough that our experience is that where parents have become familiar with the work that is done in comprehensive schools they rapidly find that their children are able to attain a high educational standard as well as a genuinely socially mixed pattern, so that many parents have themselves chosen, as a first choice, comprehensive schools.

One of the real difficulties is to try to convert people to a sense of what the comprehensive system is all about. It is really about the maintenance of standards with the disappearance of social or intellectual divisions, and there is every reason for people to opt for the comprehensive system. One can attain high educational standards by this means and the fears of the traditionalists have not been borne out in practice.

Mr. Molloy

When my hon. Friend refers to traditionalists, is she aware that one of the reasons why we could not produce a more reasonable scheme which was acceptable was because we suffered from the stagnation of the traditionalists in school building in Baling over the past 30 years?

Mrs. Williams

I am pleased that I allowed my hon. Friend to make that point.

In the case of Ealing, a further delay was occasioned by the court case which originally arose in Enfield and led to the Education Act, 1968. Procedures had to be taken and these made it unfeasible to start the comprehensive scheme rapidly. It is interesting to note that at the Labour Party Conference in 1967 my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, referring to a resolution: … it asks the Secretary of State for Education and Science to use all the means in his power, including legislation, if necessary, to ensure that progress towards a national system of fully comprehensive education is not retarded. I very much appreciate the feelings of my hon. Friends, but I ask them to step outside what is undoubtedly a difficult situation in Ealing and consider the force of my right hon. Friend's remarks. She said "if legislation is necessary", and I will not say that it may not prove necessary. However, there has been a consistent onward movement towards the comprehensive system. This has occurred in most parts of the country. Some authorities have been persuaded eventually by the educational claims of the comprehensive system, although presumably they were not persuaded by the political claims. More than two-thirds of the authorities have had plans for reorganisation accepted. So strongly do we feel about this matter that my right hon. Friend takes the view that the progress being made is satisfactory, although that cannot be said of every authority.

The educational system in the Borough of Ealing cannot be sustained, in fairness to the children and to their educational standards, for a long time. The mixed economy in education is virtually an impossibility to make work successfully in this way and I hope that the authority will set aside whatever other considerations it may have in mind and submit an effective comprehensive scheme which will take in both areas as soon as possible.

I thank my hon. Friends for raising this matter and for the great energy and effort which they have put into discussing education problems in their constituencies.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Four o'clock.