HC Deb 29 April 1974 vol 872 cc906-12

10.0 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

My purpose tonight is to obtain from the Minister a statement of his intention in dealing with the objections made by parents to the London borough of Redbridge's proposal to abolish the Ilford County High School for Girls and the Gearies County Secondary School for Girls.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members withdraw quietly.

Mr. Iremonger

I shall give HANSARD all of what I have here. Further, I ask the Minister to deal with the proposal to establish a 1,000-plus mixed school instead.

The objections were submitted to the Minister pursuant to a notice of 1st August 1973 which was published by the town clerk under Section 13(3) of the Education Act 1944. I want to ensure, on behalf of my constituents who object to the scheme, that their objections are heard by the Minister, although they will be brushed aside. I shall state them. There are 11 of them. First, there is a substantial demand, which should be respected—Mr. Speaker, if right hon. Members on the Government Front Bench would stop chattering to one another it would be enormously appreciated. I should not expect right hon. Members to take any interest in matters that concern my constituents, who are just humble people. However, I am, with great respect, trying to represent them.

First, there is a substantial demand, which should be respected, from many thousands of parents for a grammar school for girls so as to provide a sound academic education for those with special needs and aptitudes. Second, they think that there is also a demand for a grammar school for girls, and not a mixed school. They are entitled to that view, if they wish to take it, and to express it to the Minister. Third, they believe that the Ilford County High School for Girls has an exceptionally fine record of academic achievement by its girls and a contribution to make to the social life of the borough. I mean social life in its broadest terms. It is actually a beautiful school. Even if it were not so beautiful in its setting and amenities it would be a beautiful school, because of its civilised and mature tone and influence. The credit for that is due to succeeding generations of staff, parents and governors. I go to the school every year, and I can only say that I wish that the maturity and civilised attitude of some of the universities were half to match.

Fourth, it is felt that the influence of the school is especially valuable for gifted children from homes in which high academic achievement is not part of the normal set of goals. Fifth, it is felt that the chief education officer regards the Gearies School as an unsuitable annexe to the proposed new comprehensive school. Sixth, it is felt that the idea of schools of over 1,000 pupils is fundamentally objectionable, as such schools are impersonal, and that the present personal atmosphere in both the schools will be destroyed to the detriment of all. In any case, it is felt that the site is inadequate for a school of the size proposed.

The seventh point is that the educational standards of the more gifted children will be lowered. Eighth, the disruption of the reorganisation will last for six years at least. Ninth, experienced and valuable teachers are already determined to leave the borough if the proposal is approved. Tenth, the £3 million which the school will cost—I am just making a rolling forward estimate—could be more effectively used. Eleventh, the proposals are put forward merely to follow the pattern of neighbouring boroughs with a lower educational standard. That standard itself has become even lower since the comprehensivisation craze set in. The final objection is that comprehensive schools and the whole craze for them are now a burst bubble.

I quote, with the approval of the objectors, the words of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson). He said: It is possible … that, in rural areas and small towns, comprehensive schools will succeed, but what is happening in London and elsewhere suggests that there is something in their structure, not just a question of teacher supply or wages, but the difficulty of spread of ability and size and variety of courses, which almost destroys them from the centre."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 549.] We have seen bitter examples in London of how true that is.

Such is the objectors' case, which I am sure is heard and understood by the Under-Secretary of State. There are suspicions that the minds of Ministers are closed, that the Section 13(3) procedure is a humbugging farce, and that no fair consideration will be given to this case at all. I believe that these suspicions are justified, and I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question. There is no excuse for his ducking the answer, although it will not be in the typewritten speech provided for him by the Department. He can answer my question. He is a Minister, and knows the Government's policy and political intentions, and it is the function of the House to get answers to such questions from Ministers.

Can Redbridge Council's plan to preserve a minimum number of grammar schools go ahead without bringing down on the council a financial penalty from the Government? There is a fear that unless the council abolishes the few surviving grammar schools its grants will be withheld or diminished. I want to know whether that is true.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) for introducing this subject, though perhaps his reasons are different from mine. He is aware, as my hon. Friend is, of my interest in the matter. First, the school in question is in my constituency, and, secondly, as a member of Redbridge Borough Council and its reorganisation committee from the inception—the committee which produced the plan for Redbridge—I naturally take particular interest in the subject.

To me, the plan is not totally acceptable, in so far as it still provides for selection. I am hopeful that in the course of time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will adjust that. In this case, the decision to amalgamate the Ilford County High School for Girls and the Gearies School has been taken by an authority dominated by the Conservative Party, so this is not a question of party politics. It has the united backing of practically the whole council, and certainly of the education committee.

It is hoped that the schools will be finally amalgamated and opened as a comprehensive school by September 1976. If this is not done, it simply means that that whole programme for the implementation of the plan in Redbridge will be thrown out of gear, and I appeal to the Secretary of State to make his decision known as soon as possible, because I am well aware of the anxiety of Redbridge Education Committee to get this scheme known, as it were, so that it can be implemented, and to see that the programme goes rolling forward in the manner hoped for.

I again thank the hon. Member for Ilford, North for allowing me time to intervene and I thank my hon. Friend also for being agreeable to my doing so.

10.10 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) has raised an important issue affecting the education of children in his local authority of Redbridge. I am sorry that he takes the view that the care he has taken in making the case tonight will have no effect on the Department, my right hon. Friend or me. I refute the argument that the objectors who presented a petition and who made certain comments about their fears as to what the proposals under Section 13 would mean will be brushed off because we have closed minds and are not willing to examine the proposals.

I want to make it clear to the House, to the hon. Gentleman and to objectors that we have certain views about education. At the same time, we are concerned about every individual child. We shall deal with the Section 13 proposals, as we do with the many proposals that come to the Department, making sure that the children in the hon. Member's authority receive the best possible education.

I ought to spell out the situation about these Section 13 proposals. On 1st August 1973 the Redbridge local authority published public notices of its intention to reorganise the Ilford County High School for Girls under Section 13 of the 1944 Education Act. I was sorry to hear the immoderate tone used by the hon. Member about the proposal made by his own authority. The proposal is for that school and the Gearies Secondary Modern School for Girls to amalgamate and form a comprehensive school for approximately 1,050 boys and girls of all levels of ability between the ages of 11 and 18.

I could take the hon. Member to many schools much bigger than the proposed new school at Redbridge, where children are treated as individuals. These schools are run on lines which do not make for an impersonal community. All the children—those who are gifted, those who are naturally academic, and those who in the past have been neglected—are receiving an education fitting their ability and aptitude.

There is no ideal size for a school. To say that every school with more than 1,000 pupils is too big and ought not to be entertained is running against what is happening throughout the country educationally. The Gearies Girls building would house children in the age range 11 to 12, while the Ilford Girls building would house the rest—children from 13 to 18. Ultimately the authority proposes to replace the Gearies building by providing additional accommodation on the Ilford Girls site. The statutory two month period allowed for objections to the proposals to be made to the Secretary of State expired on 30th September 1973. We received a petition. I assure the House that petitions and individual letters from parents or interested groups are seriously considered in the Department. We have the best available advice. A petition of objection supported by over 16,000 people has been received, together with one letter of objection.

I was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that teachers are determined to leave the borough if this proposal goes through. The House will be interested to know—I think that the hon. Member is aware of this and might have mentioned it instead of making the broad assertion that teaching opinion is against the proposal—that letters of support of the Section 13 proposals for reorganisation have been received from the Redbridge Teachers' Association and the Redbridge Schoolmasters' Association.

In accordance with my Department's normal practice—I underline the word "normal"—copies of the objections were sent to the Redbridge authority in early October 1973 and its comments were received on 11th February 1974. When we receive objections it is our practice to ask for the comments of the education authority and of those on the spot who should know what the objections mean. Information about accommodation at the existing schools and the proposed comprehensive school was not received from the authority until 22nd February 1974.

No decision has been made because the proposals from the authority and the representations from objectors as well as those from supporters raise points which require careful analysis and consideration. The House and, I hope, the hon. Gentleman will agree that the views of teachers who are to operate the new system should be taken carefully into consideration before we make our decision. There has been no undue delay by my Department in reaching a decision.

I do not wish to duck anything; I want to be frank. The proposals must be considered against the circular which sets out the Government's determined policy to abolish selection at all stages of secondary education. We believe that to persist with selection and the separation and segregation of children is not only wasteful of talent—and the evidence of that has come from all parts of educational opinion—but grossly unfair to the children. We cannot afford to wait until the perfect solution is available, if that is ever possible, and we are determined to approve only proposals which are educationally sound and viable.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is carefully examining all the information available and will give his decision as soon as possible. I cannot prejudge that decision by commenting on the proposals and on the objections which the hon. Gentleman has, rightly and fairly, spelled out. However, regarding his assertion about the imposition of financial penalties, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear in a circular and from the Government Front Bench that in future resources for the building programme will not be allocated to authorities if they are to be used to perpetuate a system of selection.

The Government's policy, which we believe is sound education policy—we are not running away from it or ducking it; we are proud of it—is to abolish the wasteful process of selecting children and placing labels on them. Therefore, building resources will be so allocated as to enable authorities to pursue the principle which we believe is sound educationally.

We have said that we want authorities as far as possible to meet the needs of parents and teachers with regard to single sex schools. We certainly do not want to reduce standards anywhere, and we have proof that the new schools, far from lowering standards, are enhancing them. Never before have so many children been doing so well educationally, and many of them are doing very well in organised comprehensive schools. But a balance has to be struck and we take note of the local circumstances.

I end by giving the hon. Gentleman an assurance that all the objections he has raised tonight and which are included in the petition will be carefully considered. We are taking the best advice that is available and in the end we shall give our decision on the Section 13 proposals in the light of what is best for all the children in Redbridge. My right hon. Friend will make that decision as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Ten o'clock.