HC Deb 02 April 1974 vol 871 cc1069-71
4. Mr. Norman Fowler

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his policy towards the introduction of comprehensive education; and if he will make a statement.

17. Mr. Carter

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his policy towards secondary reorganisation.

22. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will now make a statement on his proposals for secondary reorganisation.

Mr. Prentice

I informed the House on 15th March that consultations would take place before the issue of a new circular replacing Circular 10/70. Those consultations have begun and the circular should issue later this month. I intend to achieve a fully comprehensive system of secondary organisation.

Mr. Fowler

Will the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless confirm that he will maintain the public's existing legal right to object to any schemes that are proposed? Will he also give an assurance that he will be guided essentially by local opinion in these matters?

Mr. Prentice

The answer to the first question is "Yes". The legal rights of the public derive from the Education Act, and there is no proposal in the foresee- able future to amend that. I shall be guided by local opinion, but not necessarily by artificially contrived local opinion. For example, petitions that on the face of them have a large number of signatures do not necessarily represent the broad mass of public opinion in an area.

Mr. Carter

Does the Minister agree that the principle of comprehensive education has been adequately approved by the electorate at both local and national elections? Will my right hon. Friend, as a matter of priority, now consider once again those many schemes that were put to the former Secretary of State but that exist only in a completely emasculated form?

Mr. Prentice

I have already made it clear in a recent statement that those local education authorities that made proposals to my predecessor and were turned down by her are welcome to submit those proposals again. I am glad to know that in many areas, including Birmingham, that process is already taking place.

Mr. Latham

Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the way in which he will assess parental wishes, and what importance he will attach to them?

Mr. Prentice

I do not think that it is possible to define that in terms that can be measured. Of course, parental wishes are one of many factors that will be taken into account. I want to make clear that the policy of the Government is to move towards a comprehensive system of secondary education as quickly as possible. There is a policy choice to be made which the Conservative Government consistently fudged, but which we do not fudge. We are making our policy in this respect clear.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if our secondary schools have problems, they are problems about inner city areas and the raising of the school leaving age, and that any tardiness in progressing with comprehensive reorganisation will make those problems worse rather than better? Will my right hon. Friend repudiate stories, such as we saw in the Daily Mail this morning, that the Government are going slow on comprehensive reorganisation?

Mr. Prentice

I completely repudiate any suggestion that we are going slow, and I agree with my hon. Friend that whereas there are many serious problems in secondary education, they do not derive from progress that has been made towards abolishing selection and they would not be helped, either, by retaining selection or restoring it in places where it has already been abandoned.

Mr. Bell

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that by statute parental wishes are not merely to be taken into account but are to prevail, in so far as that is possible? Will he also remember that over the past year or so parental opinion has been moving strongly against comprehensive schools?

Mr. Prentice

I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely wrong in the conclusion of the second part of his question. I believe that the broad tide of opinion among parents, teachers and the community as a whole is in favour of reorganisation along comprehensive lines.

Mr. Marks

Will my right hon. Friend include the existing direct grant schools in his completely comprehensive system?

Mr. Prentice

It is certainly my wish to see a completely comprehensive system affecting all secondary education. The precise terms in which the circular will refer to direct grant schools is something that I will not anticipate, because at the moment the circular is the subject of consultation. I reiterate that I hope that it will be issued later this month.