HC Deb 19 November 1974 vol 881 cc1077-80
2. Mr. Marks

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will take steps in the coming year to end the direct grant schools system and to extend comprehensive secondary education.

10. Mr. Norman Fowler

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will make a statement on his plans to introduce comprehensive education.

15. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will make a statement on the Government's plans for the spread of comprehensive education.

2 Mr. Christopher Price

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will now terminate the direct grant system.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Reg Prentice)

Circular 4/74 issued on 16th April made clear the Government's determination to develop a fully comprehensive system of secondary education. If the replies by local education authorities to that circular do not indicate that sufficiently rapid progress is being made, I shall consider what further steps may be needed. I am also considering the problem of the direct grant schools. It is clearly incompatible with the Government's policy to pay direct grants to selective schools for very much longer.

Mr. Marks

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that two of the pledges on which we won the General Election were to end the 11-plus and other forms of secondary selection and to stop the present system of direct grant schools, and that we won the General Election? In view of the obvious fact that there will be a transitional period, and we accept that consultations must take place with the local authorities and with the direct grant school authorities, should we not get on with this as quickly as possible?

Mr. Prentice

Yes, Sir. Perhaps I should enlarge on the final part of my hon. Friend's question, "as quickly as possible". I think we all recognise that in phasing out direct grant schools we would not alter the position of pupils in the schools at the time the change was made. It is also clear, I think, that one could not alter at this point in time selection procedures that are already under way in relation to September 1975. Therefore, the earliest point at which one would make a decisive break with the old system would be September 1976. That gives me some months for further thought and consultation, and I am proceeding with these.

Mr. Lamont

Since the right hon. Gentleman has singled out my constituency for criticism, may I ask whether he will ensure that any enforced reorganisation takes place against a background of funds provided specifically for the purpose? Will he bear in mind that the schools in my constituency—not only the grammar schools—are of very high academic standards and that it would be a great tragedy if they were forced to disappear merely because of doctrinaire views?

Mr. Prentice

On the matter of special funds, the House will recognise that large numbers of local education authorities have reorganised on comprehensive lines without any Government, Labour or Conservative, making special allocation of money for the purpose. Good schools have become better schools in a comprehensive set-up. I hope that wiser counsels will prevail in the London borough of Kingston-upon-Thames.

Mr. Price

Has my right hon. Friend read the recent leading article in that establishment organ The Times Educational Supplement, which stated for the first time that direct grant schools should now prepare themselves either for integration or for independence and accept Government policy? Does my right hon. Friend realise that the delay in the announcement that he has made today will only cause uncertainty and that the sooner he can state the Government's plans for September 1976, if he likes, the less uncertainty there will be over the educational system in all local education authorities?

Mr. Prentice

I agree that the direct grant schools should be thinking very thoroughly about their future. The advice given to them by The Times Educational Supplement was wise in that respect. When my hon. Friend talks about delay, I do not know what on earth he is talking about. We produced a manifesto for a full Parliament. It was never our intention to implement all of it in just a few months.

Mr. Freud

Does not the Secretary of State think it an appalling distortion of sane priorities to talk about the abolition of something which has proved to be good before implementing something that is generally recognised to need help?

Mr. Prentice

I was under the impression that Liberal Party policy was in favour of comprehensive secondary education. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said in my original reply, that it is incompatible with a policy for reorganising comprehensive secondary education to continue for much longer to pay direct grants to selective schools.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what action he proposes to take with local authorities which deliberately delay implementation of comprehensive education in their areas? Will he give an assurance that his Department will ensure that all local education authorities go comprehensive in the very near future?

Mr. Prentice

I have said that we shall review the position after the end of this year, because our circular asked for a positive response by the end of this year. There is evidence that some authorities that at an earlier stage were not minded to go comprehensive are now making plans to do so. Norfolk is an example of this. There are other authorities, I think, that were waiting for the result of the General Election, but I hope they will be encouraged by the result of that election to get on with the job.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Is the Secretary of State aware of the grave need in Wales for bilingual comprehensive schools? May I refer him in particular to the area of Dyfed, where there is great need for at least half a dozen such schools at once and they could be provided without any new building, merely by adapting existing buildings? Will he be prepared to release some money for this purpose and treat the matter as one of great urgency?

Mr. Prentice

Detailed questions on this are a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. But I take the opportunity to say that those in England who still doubt the wisdom of comprehensive reorganisation should visit Wales, where most secondary schools are already comprehensive and where comprehensive reorganisation has been a great success story.

Sir G. Sinclair

The Secretary of State gave some indication of his programme of change for the direct grant schools. Will he nevertheless take account of other claims on the limited financial resources of his Department and, in view of the Government's need to cut public expenditure, defer any action to restrict direct grant schools which are giving a service which is being demanded by an increasing number of parents?

Mr. Prentice

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the probable changes in the direct grant system against the background of public expenditure. The effects of it on public expenditure are very uncertain, but clearly there will be an effect both ways. On the one hand there will be a saving of public money in that direct grants will no longer be payable. On the other hand extra expenditure will be put on local authorities in finding places for pupils at present attending direct grant schools. The precise balance is one of the matters that we are trying to estimate and is taken into account in our thinking leading up to an announcement of a definitive policy on these matters.