HC Deb 21 December 1973 vol 866 cc1867-76

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

The object of this, the last of the Adjournment debates today, is to record the facts regarding the long-standing dispute between the East Riding Local Education Authority and the Governors of Beverley Grammar School and to ask my hon. Friend some questions.

This dispute has lasted for 10 years, during which time the position of the grammar school has been continually and deliberately eroded. It was only the recent and direct intervention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who will, I believe, be remembered as one of the great Ministers of Education of our day, that has enabled the position to be restored and the rights of parents to be vindicated.

The story starts right back in 1963, when public anxiety was expressed about the allocation of grammar school places to Beverley children, the lack of attention paid to parental wishes and the whole question of zoning. I had an Adjournment debate on these matters in July 1964. The then chief education officer of the East Riding, commenting on letters which appeared in the Press at that time, remarked that correspondents were erroneous, stupid, misinformed and educationally subnormal. These remarks set the tone for the subsequent relations between the parents and the governors on the one side and the LEA on the other.

In 1965 the LEA published its proposals for the reorganisation of secondary education in the East Riding. These proposed that the grammar school should become a second comprehensive school alongside Longcroft School. On this occasion the chief education officer remarked that, if the grammar school governors did not co-operate, either undesirable pressure would have to be brought upon them or other solutions, perhaps in the long run less suitable to them, would have to be sought.

I should point out that the grammar school is a voluntary aided school and its status cannot be changed without the governors' agreement. However, in order to effect a compromise which would preserve the high standard of this school, which incidentally is the third oldest grammar school in England and was founded in 700 A.D. by St. John of Beverley, the governors suggested that it should become a sixth form college and asked for consultation and discussions with the LEA. That was refused, in spite of the fact that Government Circular No. 10/65 said that it should take place.

At that time the chairman of the LEA stated that when proposals were definite parents would be informed fully and authoritatively". In other words, there was to be no consultation; the parents were merely to be informed when the LEA had decided what should be done.

That led to a well-attended and indignant public meeting in 1966. The matter was finally referred to the then Secretary of State, who decided in the following year that a sixth-form college was unsuitable as there would not be enough potential sixth formers to make it worth while. The governors accepted that decision, and decided to carry on as a maintained grammar school.

The next stage in this saga was a request to the LEA for more secondary school places so as to make adequate preparations for the raising of the school leaving age. It asked for 300 places, all at Longcroft School. At the same time it cut the catchment area of the grammar school, removing the well-populated areas of Willerby, Anlaby and Kirk Ella, all in my constituency, and refused repeated requests to meet the governors to discuss the whole question.

In 1971 my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State approved 350 secondary school places, but allocated 290 of them to Longcroft and 60 to the grammar school. She also decided that Longcroft should become a fully comprehensive school with a six form.

At about that time I presented a petition to my right hon. Friend on behalf of the grammar school. That petition contained about 7,000 signatures, gathered in two weeks. It apparently had little effect on the LEA, and the catchment area was again cut by the LEA, Leven and Bransbarton being removed in 1970 and Market Weighton being removed in 1972.

In 1973 my right hon. Friend approved Cottingham's becoming a fully comprehensive school, a proposal which I supported. But I again pointed out to the Department, as I had on many occasions, the inevitable consequences of that decision on the future intake to the grammar school. For two years I had been urging the Department to take action over the grammar school's catchment area, which was being reduced year by year, but there was little result, except for a growing overcrowding at Longcroft School and some spare places at the grammar school.

However, the matter came to a head this year, when the normal intake of 60 at the beginning of the school year in September was reduced to seven out of 55 who sat for the examination in Beverley and one out of 24 in Cottingham, a total of eight instead of the normal 60. All other areas of the rest of my constituency and adjacent constituencies, except the towns of Beverley and Cottingham, had been excluded by the LEA.

As I had had a vast correspondence with the Department for years, I felt that there was now no alternative but to approach my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State direct. She immediately took action. Having examined the position, she directed that the selection examination be retaken not only by those who had sat the examination in Beverley and Cottingham but also by boys of parents who had applied throughout the whole area, covering not only my constituency but the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), whom I am glad to see here this afternoon, and my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan). Thus the parents' rights under the law, which had been continuously whittled away by the LEA, were restored and safeguarded.

Unfortunately, that came very late in the day. I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the tests are taken as soon as possible, that the normal and acceptable standards will be required, and that parents will receive adequate notification of their rights, as only the LEA has access to the addresses of parents of boys now at primary school of the right age to sit the examination. In this respect, will he bear in mind that the East Riding LEA goes out of existence at the end of March next year, when the new Humberside County Council takes over? It has already procrastinated for so long that at least one term's intake, and possibly two, for the grammar school have been lost. It may well intend to continue the process of procrastination until the last moment—namely, until it disappears at the end of March of next year.

It has been said that my right hon. Friend's decision will reintroduce selectivity. That has been said by some schoolteachers and it has been represented in the Press. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is not so and that selection must remain in respect of Beverley Grammar School? That does not necessarily mean the continuation of what is known as the 11-plus examination. That is the existing method of selection. The governors have suggested many other methods of selection to the LEA. The LEA has so far turned down those suggestions and has refused to discuss the matter with the governors.

I regret to say that there has been a certain amount of party political bickering on this matter in my constituency. That is regrettable. It casts doubt on the existing comprehensive schools being able to carry on alongside the grammar school. I believe that the comprehensive schools in my constituency, with possibly one exception, are excellent. I do not believe that they would suffer from a grammar intake provided that it was spread over a large area. That, of course, is my right hon. Friend's intention.

I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that, until and unless the law is altered, the grammar school will continue, if the governors so decide, and that selectivity will also continue. There are a number of different methods of selection which can be decided by agreement between the governors and the local education authority. This debate is in no way critical of comprehensive schools. I believe that such schools have an important part to play in our educational system, and certainly in my constituency. This matter illustrates only too clearly how the Secretary of State's intervention was required to preserve the rights of parents and their children, which the LEA has been resisting until the last moment.

I express my thanks, and the thanks of many of my constituents, to the Secretary of State. I remind my hon. Friend that time is now very short for my right hon. Friend's directive to be made effective. I hope that my hon. Friend will do all that he can to ensure that the directive is put into effect so that Beverley Grammar School will have its normal intake of boys in the coming January term.

4.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I admire the vigour with which my hon. Friend the Member for Haltem-price (Mr. Wall) has pursued this case over the years. I sympathise very much with his concern for Beverley Grammar School. It has an incredibly long history and it has had excellent results. I confirm straight away that as it is a voluntary-aided school, only the governors may make proposals to change the character of the school. If they do not choose to do so, the school will remain as it is.

The position is—as it has always been in respect of grammar schools—that there is selection. There will continue to be selection. It is right that there is no one method of selection laid down from on high. Selection varies from one part of the country to the other.

It is not necessary to have what I assume my hon. Friend means when he talks about the 11-plus. One does not necessarily have to have that form of selection. It would be fair to point out that the schools of the local authority are held in high regard as, I believe, my hon. Friend acknowledges. It is possible that their success in offering a full range of courses for all shades of ability has had something to do with the fall in the number of people seeking and finding admission to Beverley Grammar School.

It has clearly been my right hon. Friend's policy that parents must have the right to choose, and in this case to choose education at Beverley Grammar School. My hon. Friend has summarised the long and rather tangled history. I shall not cover all the ground again which he covered, except to recap briefly. After my right hon. Friend's latest approval this summer of a comprehensive reorganisation proposal for schools at Beverley and nearby Cottingham, the authority was reminded that it did not remove the right of parents to choose a selective school, such as Beverley Grammar School, if it was suitable for their children and if places were available.

This was done because it had been brought to my right hon. Friend's notice by my hon. Friend and others that the authority had been refusing admission to selection tests to boys living outside the immediate vicinity of the school. The authority was warned that an unreasonable refusal to admit boys to the school could result in a direction under Section 68 of the 1944 Act being given by my right hon. Friend to the authority.

Towards the end of the summer holiday a number of parents complained on these grounds, and other parents whose sons had sat the selection test but failed complained about the conduct of the tests themselves which the authority was responsible for running. My right hon. Friend invited the East Riding Education Authority to give its observations on these complaints and took professional advice on the conduct of the tests. It was in the light of this and of the evidence before her that she concluded that the authority had acted unreasonably. She directed the authority to rerun the tests, to admit to further tests all candidates normally resident in the authority's area whose parents expressed or might express a wish to attend the Beverley Grammar School, and to spread out the tests over a period so as to avoid excessive fatigue in the candidates.

Following the issue of the direction on 24th October, the authority was sent a further explanatory letter enclosing the names and addresses of parents who had appealed to my right hon. Friend so that the authority could notify them of arrangements for further tests. It was pointed out that others might apply for admission to the tests as a result of learning of the direction, and that it was my right hon. Friend's intention that all who did apply within a reasonable period should be allowed to take these further tests.

The authority wrote on 5th November in response to the direction, claiming that the original tests were not unfairly administered and offering new information which again was carefully considered with the benefit of professional advice. In the light of this, my right hon. Friend concluded that there were no grounds for modifying the direction which had been issued.

While the authority's letter was under consideration my hon. Friend, as he will recall, wrote several times bringing to my right hon. Friend's attention further information about the conduct of intelligence tests and about the manner in which the authority was proposing to implement the direction. My officers wrote to the authority on 14th December, after considering the matter very carefully, because I think there were a number of important points to look at, and my officers reiterated the requirements of the direction and reminded the authority that it was not open to it to refuse entry to the tests to any boy solely on the ground that his parents had not previously asked for him to be tested. The letter did not ask the authority to write individually to parents other than those whose addresses had already been forwarded. Nor did it suggest that the tests should be invigilated by one of Her Majesty's inspectors, for reasons to which I will come later.

My hon. Friend has asked a number of reasonable questions. I hope that I have answered one or two of them about the future of the grammar school as a whole. On his further specific points I would say this. First of all, on the question of when the tests can be taken, my hon. Friend asked that they should be taken as soon as possible. At the present stage I must leave this to the authority. My right hon. Friend has made her wishes very clear and it is now for the authority to implement them as soon as possible. The authority has to be allowed adequate time to receive applications for the tests and to make arrangements for them.

In view of the questions raised since the issue of the direction by the authority, by the school governors and by my hon. Friend, and of the requirement that tests be spread over a period, the authority could not have been expected to complete the further tests in time for an additional intake for the school for January, but I should expect the authority to run the tests early in the new year and I can assure my hon. Friend that I am watching the situation very closely.

On the question whether adequate notice was given to parents of their rights, I feel that in the light of the widespread publicity that my right hon. Friend's direction has received in the local and national Press, and, I understand, on local radio, and the publication by local head teachers of resolutions concerning the actions of the authority and of my right hon. Friend, notice of the new tests can hardly have been missed by any parent who is really interested in securing a place at the school. In other words, I feel that it has been well publicised and I should be surprised if there were parents who were not aware of what was happening, and I am sure that this debate will add further publicity.

The authority's failure to do as my hon. Friend has suggested could not be regarded as unreasonable, and my right hon. Friend therefore feels that she would not be justified in giving a further direction in this matter. It has been suggested that she might appoint one of Her Majesty's inspectors to invigilate these further tests. I must emphasise that the local education authority is entirely responsible under the articles of government of the school, which of course are approved by my right hon. Friend, for deciding which candidates are qualified for admission to the school by reason of ability. My right hon. Friend therefore has no power to intervene in the supervision of the tests unless they have been or are clearly going to be improperly administered.

But these are in fact standard tests administered by a standard method and their invigilation as such has never been in question. In practical terms, moreover, invigilation by one of Her Majesty's inspectors would not achieve the result that my hon. Friend desires. He referred earlier to the loss of public confidence in the area, and we feel that the substitution of one of Her Majesty's inspectors for the authority's invigilator could only lower confidence in the authority still further. If the running of the tests leads my right hon. Friend to conclude that the authority has acted unreasonably, she will, of course, consider what appropriate action she should take, but she cannot deduce from the results of the earlier tests that the new tests will be improperly run.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall watch this matter closely, but I should like to conclude by saying that we have to remember that education is designed fundamentally as a local authority service. Powers of direction exist under the 1944 Act, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that they are powers to be taken up only in exceptional circumstances, and we should be reluctant to extend them still further. They are essentially powers to be taken after careful consideration and as a last resort. However, again I assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to keep a close watch in this matter. I hope that all will go well and that the Beverley Grammar School will continue to serve the community as notably as it has for so many years.

Mr. Wall

Before my hon. Friend sits down, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 15th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.