HC Deb 11 May 1972 vol 836 cc1533-6
10. Mr. Duffy

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what guidance she is giving to existing local education authorities on the size of comprehensive schools in the planning of future school building programmes.

Mrs. Thatcher

In a recent speech I drew attention to the increasing evidence that the very large schools which were once seen as normal for comprehensive development are no longer so regarded. But a great deal must depend upon local circumstances.

Mr. Duffy

But is not the right hon. Lady aware that the bogy of the big school has always been raised by the opponents in principle of our comprehensive system? Does she not think that a lot of nonsense is talked by the opponents of the large school and that they ought to realise that the large school is a different school and must be run in a different way in that it provides opportunities which are wholly desirable and perhaps unique—if only the administration and administrators are equal to the challenge it presents?

Mrs. Thatcher

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The new factor is how well some of the smaller comprehensive schools are running and how high is their voluntary rate of staying on into the sixth form. It means that one does not need such a large school to get a viable sixth form. That was the original reason for having the very large school. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the information he will find that some of the smaller schools are running very successfully. But I do not wish to be absolutely rigid.

Mr. Evelyn King

In considering the best size of school, which I recognise is not an easy subject, I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance, if it be an assurance, that departmental thinking will no longer be dominated by the alleged necessity for large sixth forms often doing eccentric courses and subjects which are not very necessary. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that middle and lower school boys have their rights as well as the older boys at the top in our schools, since their rights have tended to be neglected?

Mrs. Thatcher

I think that many children are happier in smaller schools. I will not say that all of them are. The tendency to increasing numbers in sixth forms may have led to our having larger schools than were necessary. But I do not wish to lay down rigid rules. I prefer only general guidelines. It is important to provide for as many of the pupils in schools as possible, including the middle and lower years as well.

Mr. Armstrong

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the real reason why smaller comprehensive schools are now becoming generally acceptable is that children are more intelligent than ever her Department or most educationists gave them credit for and, therefore, a viable sixth form is on the cards with a much smaller number? Does not this encourage the right hon. Lady to get rid of her obvious prejudice in favour of selective schools?

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Gentleman has made the case perfectly for the smaller comprehensive schools. I am glad he agrees with me about it.

15. Mr. William Price

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many plans for the introduction of comprehensive schools have been rejected by her Department since June, 1970; and how many schools were involved.

Mrs. Thatcher

The practice of approving or rejecting non-statutory schemes for secondary reorganisation was discontinued over a year ago.

Mr. Price

Has the right hon. Lady's attention been drawn to the fact that certain towns and cities in various parts of the country changed hands last week and that in due course many of them will seek to end selection in their schools? Will the right hon. Lady assure the House, in view of the hallowed Tory belief in the freedom of local government, that when these proposals come forward they will not be obstructed by her or by her Department?

Mrs. Thatcher

I give the assurance that I gave in the manifesto. The existing rights of local education authorities will be maintained, whatever their political complexion.

Captain W. Elliot

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that no crack-brained schemes of Socialist authorities will be approved unless they are educationally sound?

Mrs. Thatcher

We look at each case on its merits under Section 13 of the Act. In accordance with the provisions of that Section all educational factors and the weight of objections have to be taken into account.

Mr. Edward Short

Will the right hon. Lady say how many proposals to convert selective schools into non-selective schools she has rejected since June, 1970?

Mrs. Thatcher

I believe that there is a later Question about that on the Order Paper, but my recollection is that the number of schools is about 30. There are more proposals, because one school can be the subject of a number of proposals. I believe that there is a later Question on this issue.

24. Dr. Stuttaford

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what approval she has given to comprehensive schools in Norwich with more than 1,000 pupils.

Mrs. Thatcher

Three schools, whose establishment was approved in August, 1970, now have more than 1,000 pupils.

Dr. Stuttaford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of her recent welcome comments about the size of schools Norwich has too many schools that are too large and that this is causing anxiety to educationalists in the city, from whatever political party they may come?

Mrs. Thatcher

The numbers at all these schools will fall in September, 1972, when the age of transfer changes from 11-plus to 12-plus. The overall numbers will therefore fall. I do not think it is possible to have changes in existing schools, even though they may be quite large, where they are working reasonably well. At any rate the initiative rests with the local education authority to put up fresh proposals, and then of course I will always consider them.