HC Deb 26 January 1971 vol 810 cc343-6

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place head teachers in maintained schools in England on contracts renewable or terminable at stated intervals. As the tumult and the shouting die and the captains and the kings depart, I seize this rather quiet moment to try to put forward a proposition which, I concede, is not of world wide interest compared with the topics about which we have lately been talking, but which I nevertheless believe to have very real importance. It is a topic to which I referred briefly in my maiden speech to this House last summer and which I should like now to develop.

I am fully aware that it is unlikely that the Bill will find its place on the Statute Book in the form in which I put it forward, but I have no doubt that it is a subject of serious importance in the realm of education. Therefore, I hope that the House will support me in acknowledging that this is a serious topic which it is worth looking into fairly closely.

I might add that the principle which I am seeking to raise is of fairly general application throughout the public service, although I am only considering one aspect of it this afternoon.

What is the problem? Essentially it is that once a head teacher is appointed in a State school he is there until he retires. In effect, he can be dismissed only for crime, misdemeanour or really gross negligence of his duties.

In theory, that is not the case. The Association of Education Committees has a model agreement for the appointment of head teachers which says that the agreement may be determined at the end of any school term by the Committee or by the teacher on three or four months' notice, depending on the time of the year. So, in theory, it is possible to replace a head teacher, if necessary.

In practice, this does not happen, for a variety of reasons. One reason certainly, and I think quite reasonably, concerns union opposition. Another reason, equally reasonably, is due to the fact that nobody has ever got round to thinking what to do when this takes place. Anyway, it does not happen: as I say, a head, when appointed, is there for life.

On the whole, this matters not a whit. I believe that we can claim a genuinely high standard among our head teachers. Most of them are good—I can claim to have seen quite a lot of schools over the last few years—and some are quite exceptional. I believe that this is because we very sensibly give our heads great responsibility, and, as generally happens when people are given responsibility, they live up to it. Therefore, I am not in any sense trying to paint a picture of a profession made up of a series of Captain Grimes and Wackford Squeers, or what have you. I believe that we can be proud of the quality of our head teachers.

But we ought also to be realistic and accept that some are not up to it. Perhaps they were up to it initially when appointed, but have then declined, as happens in all walks of life, with the passing of the years. This is inevitable, but it can be very damaging indeed both to the children and to the staffs of schools when it happens.

It is also true that, as schools tend to get larger, so the risk that we may run tends to increase. It is a matter of common sense that in schools of 2,000 or more children, with staffs of corresponding size, the role of the head teacher becomes more than ever important.

I will not give examples of where I think the kind of failure about which I am talking has happened. I know from my own experience of some examples and, since I put down this request for leave to bring in the Bill, other people have mentioned examples to me. If we are honest, we must realise that this happens. I simply stress that in our system the head is crucial and we cannot afford the inadequate.

The question is: what can we do about it? We could try to implement the conditions which I outlined earlier. But, in reality, I think that that is impracticable because of the union objections and the fact that we have no proper system of compensation.

I propose, therefore, a scheme of contracts by which normally a head teacher would be appointed for, say, five years and, at the end of that time, his contract would be due for renewal. The education authority would consult the governors of the school and make its own decision. I have no doubt that in the vast majority of cases the head teacher would be reappointed. But, equally, it should be possible, if an education authority does not want to reappoint a head teacher, not to do so when the contract expires without having to go through the elaborate system of dismissal which now exists. As I say, normally education authorities would reappoint.

Obviously if a system of this kind is introduced we must have a proper system for compensation. In bringing forward the Bill I shall offer some tentative proposals on how that might be done. However, this is really a matter for detailed negotiation. I am seeking leave to bring forward the Bill to raise this issue. I acknowledge that this topic cannot be fully covered without detailed negotiations with the unions. Clearly, we should have to have substantial terminal payment, plus pension rights, or perhaps think of preserving the existing salary. It would also be worth considering some kind of emeritus status. There is no doubt that status is an important ingredient in the problem.

I hope that somehow we could have the idea accepted that if a head teacher, towards the end of his career, decided to switch, or was switched, from being a head teacher to an ordinary subject teacher, there would be nothing wrong or degrading about it. It is a natural thing, comparable to what happens in many other professions.

I repeat that this seems to me to be a matter for negotiation, but I believe that the topic I am raising this afternoon is one which, sooner or later, has to be faced. It is important and serious and it is for his reason that I have asked for leave to bring in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Raison, Mr. Maude, Mr. Hornby, Mr. Lane, Dr. Vaughan, Mr. Kenneth Clark, Mr. Grylls and Mr. Shelton.