HC Deb 25 April 1975 vol 890 cc1944-75

Order for Second Reading read.

2.22 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this Bill before the House. I add my congratulations to those which have already been accorded to the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley) on the passage of his Bill through the House. Indeed, it was with some dismay that I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), which lasted for 62 minutes. It was curiosity which led me to the Vote Office to find out what marathon discussions had taken place in the Committee stage of that Bill and for how many days that Bill was in Committee. To my astonishment, I found that the Committee stage did not last for one morning. It lasted for one hour and 14 minutes in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman spoke for three or four minutes.

I would not wish to suggest that there was any intention to reduce the time that we can devote to my Bill on education. It is with some regret that I say that those outside this House may, indeed, draw such a conclusion. I am sure that it would be erroneous, because I welcome the statement made on 17th December last by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, whom I am glad to see here. He said: We are most anxious to involve parents in schools…"—[official Report, 17th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 1340.] If that is the case, it is indeed a pity that we shall not have more time to discuss the Bill today.

I should like to say a few words about the background to the points raised in the

Bill, and then refer to some of the provisions in the Bill and the reason why they have been phrased as they are. We must accept that there is an increasing cause for concern about the standards in many of our schools today, especially schools in deprived urban areas. I refer to standards of literacy, of truancy, of discipline and, I am afraid, sometimes, of violence.

On literacy, many of us were reassured by the findings of the Bullock Committee, which showed that, contrary to what some people believed, there does not seem to have been a decline in the standards of literacy in the past few years. This, of course, we all welcome. Nevertheless, it did not leave any cause for complacency in our minds. The Bullock Report showed clearly that literacy is not as good as it might be, and there has been other research the results of which have not been quite so reassuring.

Some research was undertaken by the Department of Education in the form of a survey in Liverpool, Birmingham, Deptford and the West Riding. The report of that survey said: Thousands of children leave Inner city primaries at 11 unable to read even a simple sentence. In Teacher Magazine of 17th May last year reference is made to the Inner London Education Authority and to the fact that in over half the sample of 16year-olds of day release pupils, the reading level was below the average of 10-year-old pupils. This is obviously of concern to all in this House and in the education establishments. Bullock may have assured us that the situation is not as bad as we feared, but I am sure that it is not as good as we would wish.

On truancy, various figures are bandied about. I am the governor of a good comprehensive school in South London. The other day the headmaster told me that in that school at the moment there is an absentee rate of about 18 per cent. I asked "What percentage of that is truancy?" He said "It is awfully difficult to know, because so often the parents will not co-operate and tell you whether the child is absent for a reason, or whether it is truancy. If I had to guess, I would think that about half those absent children are truants." That would mean that 250 children are away every day, of which number perhaps over 100 are truants. This can leave no cause for complacency.

On discipline and violence, I refer to the reports made by the National Association of Schoolmasters. As the introduction of one of those reports said, there is no crisis. Thank heavens there is no crisis, but neither is there cause for complacency. It may well be that the politicians—we in this House—have paid too much attention to this complicated business of reorganisation and not enough attention to trying to improve what is going on in the maintained sector and the comprehensive sector of education, where, after all, the majority of the children receive their education. There is a heavy responsibility on us and on teachers to see that things are better in all our schools.

Part of this manifestation of concern, I think, is shared by parents. I must tell the House that I have been intimately connected with education only since 1966–67, but I have no doubt that parents are showing an increasing concern about the way in which their children are educated. The night before last there was a lobby at the House of Commons, when 1,000 parents came here demonstrating for the retention of direct grant schools and grammar schools. I do not intend to talk about direct grant schools and grammar schools today, because the Bill has little or nothing to do with them. I think that those demonstrating parents all agreed when I said that they would not he demonstrating if they believed that all the schools in the system were as good as they thought the schools attended by their children to be. Their demonstration for a certain type of school was the obverse of the coin of their concern about other types of school. If we could have all schools of a single, magnificent, uniform level, parents would feel much less concern.

What can we do? In these days, one immediately adds a rider by asking "What can one do about this which will not cost much money?" In the country's present economic situation it is not sensible to make suggestions and recommendations which will cost a great deal.

It has been reported in the newspapers that the purpose of the Bill is parent power. That is nonsense. It is nothing to do with parent power. It is merely to tilt the balance slightly towards parental rights, and perhaps slightly away from the local education authorities. I believe that the greater part of it complies strictly with the intentions of the 1944 Education Act which were not realised.

The involvement of parents in education can only be welcomed. An interesting experiment took place in the United States, called the "Head Start Programme ", in which money was spent on nursery education for children aged three years to five years in one part of a State, whilst in another part the same amount was spent on teaching the mothers how to talk to their children, get them interested and so on. After five years the results were apparently conclusive that the money was better spent on educating the parents and getting them involved with the children's growth and learning.

That is academic, because many mothers go out to work and there is no alternative to providing nursery education. But I draw the conclusion that it is very important that the interest of a father and mother in the education of their children can have an important effect on the children's education. It should be a partnership between the parents, the school and the child to do the best for the child.

I sent a draft copy of the Bill to more than a dozen organisations connected with teachers, to teachers' unions of all sorts—in fact, to everyone that I could think of. I have had a considerable response. About 10 replied in great detail, with many helpful suggestions which were incorporated into the final draft now before the House. I think that not one of those organisations expressed any antagonism towards the general purpose of the Bill. Their doubts concerned matters of substance in the drafting, and in most cases I have taken them into account.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Was a copy sent to the greatest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers?

Mr. Sheldon

A copy was sent to Sir Edward Britton just before 1st April. when he gave way to the new General Secretary, Mr. Jarvis. It is perhaps for that reason that I received no reply from the NUT, which I regret. I can only suppose that it was because of the changeover.

I am very grateful to all those who spend a great deal of time going through the Bill. Some letters ran to five or six pages—longer than the Bill.

I have said that the general objective is to tilt the balance slightly towards parental rights. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of the famous Section 76 of the 1944 Act, which lays an injunction on local authorities to "have regard to the general principle that pupils should be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure". I do not believe that those who drafted that section were merely expressing a pious hope that children should be educated according to the wishes of their parents.

As far as I can ascertain, in the 30 years that the Act has been on the statute book no parent in England has yet managed to win a court case when he has disagreed with the way in which his children were being educated and has sought to apply the section. I understand that in every case the two provisos have vitiated the injunction, though I believe that someone managed to win a case in Scotland. If the Under-Secretary can tell me that I am wrong, I shall be delighted, but it must have happened rarely, because I have been unable to discover any instance.

I was told by the secretary of a distinguished teachers' union of a case in which he was involved some years ago, when a father pleaded Section 76 so that he could send his two boys to a public boarding school. The father said that he was prepared to pay the boarding cost element, and showed that the result would be cheaper than sending the boys to the school to which the local education authority wish to send them. The father lost the case.

I was interviewed by a journalist about the Bill yesterday, and she said—

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

Whether or not parents have been successful in winning cases, does not the hon. Gentleman admit that since 1944 the intention of the Act has been very much implemented, in that by and large schools consult parents about their children's education in a way that never happened previously? Before 1944, what one got at school was what one was given. The number of parents' meetings and other forms of consultation with parents today constitutes an enormous revolution compared with the situation before the war.

Mr. Shelton

That is true. The situation is improving all the time. But no hon. Member can be happy with the present situation when we see the growth of parental discontent at the way in which their children are being educated. We are all well aware of the number of parents who come to us, especially in the early autumn, at the time of school transfer, feeling despair and anxiety about the school to which the local education authority proposes to send their child.

The journalist who interviewed me was fairly young. I do not think she had been out of school long. She asked whether the Bill would have helped her when she was at school. She said that she had been in the A-stream and in consequence had had to take physics and chemistry, when what she was longing to take was biology. Biology was taught only to the B-stream. It would have cost no more for her to take biology, and I believe that she and her parents should have been allowed to insist that she should take it.

If any hon. Member wishes to say that if the school had not been streamed she would have been able to take biology. I reply that that is not relevant to my argument. In certain cases parents cannot insist on certain things being done for their children because of the drafting of the 1944 Act. That is why I propose an amendment to the effect that the local education authority should educate children according to the wishes of their parents unless it can show that it would be unreasonable so to do on the ground of disproportionate cost.

That is a difficult provision to draft. I have consulted widely about it, and we may wish to consider the matter in Committee. Lord Alexander, the Secretary of the Association of Education Committees, wrote a letter to me in his personal capacity because at that time he had not consulted the AEC. The draft which I had sent him merely contained the words "unreasonable so to do" and did not include the proviso about cost. He said: I fear your draft would open the door to a very great many appeals. Let me give you a few examples: the parent who wanted a child to receive boarding education"— that is covered by the cost element in the final draft— the parent who insisted on choosing a school which involved the authority in substantial travel expenditure"— that, too, is covered by the cost element— the parent of a child where there was a sufficient handicap—physical or mental—to justify special education who insisted that the child should be educated in an ordinary school". I agree that those are matters which we may well wish to discuss in Committee.

Nevertheless, local education authorities would not be stripped of protection. The comparative cost proviso would cover the vast majority of cases. A mother may say "I wish Johnnie to be taught Chinese." The school may say "We should have to employ a teacher in Chinese at a cost of £3,000 a year. Therefore, instead of costing £300 to educate, he would cost £3,300. We cannot provide an instructor in Chinese." That case would be covered by the Bill.

There are other provisions in the 1944 Act which protect local education authorities. I refer to the imposition on local education authorities to give efficient instruction. This is a cover for them to provide education according to a child's age, aptitude and ability—the famous three As. I do not believe that local education authorities would be stripped of protection, but a parent who had a legitimate reason for wanting a certain change made would stand a better chance under my suggested amendment than he would under the 1944 Act. It is interesting that the Education (Scotland) Act, which was passed 20 years or so later, is worded slightly differently. Perhaps between the passing of the 1944 Act and the passing of the Scottish Act it was realised that changes needed to be made.

The suggested amendment of the 1944 Act incorporated in Clause 1 of the Bill should be read in conjunction with Clause 2, in which I suggest that a form of appeals tribunal should be set up to which parents could go should they feel aggrieved by an education authority's decision. Clauses 1 and 2 are part and parcel of the whole. At the moment parents have little or no means of appeal against an education authority. Section 68 of the 1944 Act gives the Secretary of State the right to issue a writ of mandamus if he believes that a local education authority is acting, or is about to act, unreasonably. It is interesting that the word "unreasonably" is used.

However, in the 30 years or so since the 1944 Act was passed no writ of mandamus has been issued, although I am told that Durham was threatened with one. Therefore, parents have not been overwhelmingly successful in convincing successive Secretaries of State that their local education authority has been acting unreasonably in education their children.

It is true that we have a Local Government Ombudsman, Baroness Serota. However, in the provisions by which the ombudsman was set up education policy is specifically excluded. I understand that all that a local education authority which is called before the ombudsman has to say is that it is its policy to do a certain thing, and, by some magic formula, the matter because ultra vires and the ombudsman cannot comment on it, although an authority probably would not get away with that on such matters as school meals and transport. A parent cannot appeal to the ombudsman on the ground of policy.

I suppose we could consider ourselves to be a form of court of appeal because many parents come to us in the autumn saying that there is no school for their children to go to, that the school the children are supposed to go to is the wrong school or that Johnnie has a younger sister and, therefore, they want him to go to a co-educational school and the local education authority says that he must go to a single-sex school.

We should therefore make provision for the setting up of appeal tribunals in local authority areas. There are less than half the number of local authority areas that there were until quite recently and, therefore, such tribunals would not be very expensive. I accept that if a parent says to an appeal tribunal "I wish my child to go to such-and-such a school" and the local authority says "The school is full. It would be a disproportionate cost to add a wing to the school for your child", the parent would lose the appeal. But at least he or she would have had the satisfaction of having had the matter discussed by an independent body, of having presented the evidence and of having had a judgment made.

Without casting any reflection on the education services, may I say that too often a feeling of bureaucracy is given to a worried parent who goes to the division office and asks to see the divisional officer, who is genuinely much too busy to see her, and usually ends up talking to a clerk. Parents become frustrated and are made unhappy by such occurrences. We must have an independent system for appeals. Education is very important for a child and the decision made by a local education authority can mould his whole life.

My third objective is to try to get parents more involved in the running of the school. The Confederation for the Advancement of State Education made a survey at the beginning of 1973 just before the reorganization of local government. That survey found that only 30 out of the 164 local authorities which existed then were bringing parents and teachers on to school governing bodies․that is, about 20 per cent.

Living in London, as I do, where the ILEA for some years has had parents and teachers on governing bodies, I am inclined to accept that practice is universal. It is not. At least three parents and two teachers should be on governing bodies, and the headmaster should have the right to be on the governing body should he so wish. In the first draft I included the headmaster on the governing body, but the opinion of many of the groups which I consulted was that certain headmasters, genuinely and properly, felt that they could do their job better if they were not on the governing body to be made up of parents, but the Bill provides for the inclusion of at least three parents.

I intend no reflection on our colleagues who serve on local councils, but too often governors are local councilors who have been put on the governing body because they have won a local government election. If they are interested in education, that is excellent, but if their interest lies in housing or roads, would it not be better, instead of a councillor, to have a parent?

I accept that there are problems in legislating for three parents to be on governing bodies. There may be problems with aided schools because the balance of representation between the local authority and the trustees of the church—if it is a church-aided school—might be affected. That matter will have to be considered in Committee.

I am well aware of and welcome the Government's proposal to set up a committee to inquire into the government and management of schools. My proposals in Clause 3 are in no way in contradiction to the Government's proposals. I cannot believe that any committee would recommend that there should be no parents and no teachers on governing bodies. Indeed, if a committee were to recommend that, I should oppose it, as would most educationists and most hon. Members. There is no reason why the proposal contained in Clause 3 should wait upon the recommendations or report of the committee which has, quite properly, been set up by the Government.

Consultation has increased enormously in the last generation, and we all welcome that. Nevertheless, it is not uniform throughout the country. There are schools with excellent systems of consultation. On the other hand, we all know of schools which have, metaphorically, a large notice over the front door saying "Parents keep out". Decisions are still taken to put children into uniform or to take them out of uniform and to change the length of the school day, decisions which vitally affect parents, without consultation with the parents.

Clause 4 requires a system of consultation. I had intended that it should require the setting up of parent-teacher associations or parents' unions, but I have been advised that there are satisfactory forms of consultation other than through parent-teacher associations. What I am looking for is satisfactory consultation.

I have suggested that matters concerning the curriculum should be excluded from that consultation—again on advice which I accept. I have a question in my mind about sex education and religious instruction. Those are probably matters on which there should be consultation with the parents. If parents served on the governing body, no doubt they would represent parents' interests sufficiently, but the recent case of the inclusion of Marxism in religious instruction raises profound queries in my mind. Whether there is a way of providing legislatively for consultation on matters of that sort concerned with the curriculum, I do not know. No such provision is included in the final draft of the Bill.

In many parts of the country parents have a choice of school, principally in urban areas. They have the choice of a single-sex school, a co-educational school, a school that is near at hand or one that is further away, and they may also be influenced by the ambitions which the headmaster has for his school. No parent can make a proper choice without information. Without information it is not a choice but a lottery. Parents may visit possible schools or talk to their friends. The ILEA produces an excellent booklet called "Secondary Schools in Islington". Each page deals with one school. That is better than nothing. In Hertfordshire I am told that the education authority produces merely a sheet listing the schools in the neighbourhood and giving the size and the structure. I have no first-hand knowledge of that, but I was told about it by a member of a teachers' organisation.

On the other hand, there are excellent prospectuses such as the two I have in my hand, one produced by the Lad-broke school and the other by the Henry Compton school, both within the ILEA. Every school should be able to make available to parents a prospectus of that sort. The cost would not be great. It might run into a few hundreds of pounds a year, but it would be of great value to the parents. There is no true choice without knowledge.

I do not claim that the Bill, should it ever see the light of legislative day, will wave a magic wand and cure all our education problems. But I believe that at practically no cost it will involve marginally another 10 per cent. of parents in the education of their children. If the Bill achieves that, our time will have been well spent because it is so important that parents should be involved in the progress of their children.

There are some schools and a number of local education authorities on which the Bill would have no effect because they are already doing what I wish to see carried out. However, there are other schools on which the Bill may have a profoundly beneficial effect. Therefore, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hatton (Manchester, Moss Side)

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) said that if the Bill were given a Second Reading it would not provide a magic wand to solve all our education problems. I have a feeling that the Bill may enlarge some of those problems rather than solve them.

Nevertheless, I welcome this opportunity to discuss some aspects of the education service, because we have lacked opportunities for such a debate in the present Parliament. I hope that we shall use this occasion to discuss matters which are so fundamental to our children's education.

I wish first to deal briefly with those provisions of the Bill which concern themselves with parental wishes. I feel that the parents whom the hon. Gentleman has in mind and who, perhaps, at times feel a sense of dissatisfaction, are parents who were in a relatively privileged position when their children had the opportunity to attend a selective school. The development of the education system has greatly contributed to the widening of educational choice.

Manchester has a very famous grammar school, in which I have served as a governor. Until the city recently decided to reorganise the system of secondary education, there were 90 selective places each year in the Manchester Grammar School—and those places were very selective indeed. I do not know how the Bill would assist parents in the Manchester area if those places were still available and parents were able to say "Yes, we should like our boy to go to the grammar school". Under the previous system there was no opportunity for many parents to envisage their children passing the selective examination.

I conducted correspondence with the Manchester Grammar School suggesting that instead of a selective examination there should be a wider choice for parents in the city. I suggested that the school should allow two pupils from each primary school in the inner city area to go to the grammar school without selective examination. I felt that if the grammar school had to cope with problems of pupils who came from unfortunate homes—the sort of problems with which ordinary schools have to cope every day—the school would face a difficult task, but would learn many important lessons. After all, the rest of the school system has to cope with those boys and girls.

I wish to stress the widening of opportunity given to parents following the development of non-selective education. Again, I give an example from my own city. Before the development of the comprehensive system in Manchester, we had a reputation in terms of equality of opportunity in the maintained grammar schools and technical high schools in the city—but for many parents it was still a limited opportunity Some 20 per cent. or more—those whose children passed the 11-plus examination—had the opportunity to make a choice. A limited group of parents, whose boys or girls obtained places in a technical high school, had a further opportunity. However, the great majority of parents had no choice. They had to take the places that remained in the secondary modern schools.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that this is a debate about comprehensive and grammar schools. It is not. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that neither he nor the Labour Party is keen to involve parents, or to give them more choice within the comprehensive framework?

Mr. Hatton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I shall develop it later. I shall try to develop the theme of widening the opportunity for parents to choose, which the hon. Gentleman wants. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy him that some local education authorities have been able to do that.

Formerly, many parents had a limited opportunity to choose, depending on whether their children had been successful in the 11-plus examination. In Manchester, under the selective system, if the parents, of a boy or girl had the opportunity of a place in one of the city grammar or technical high schools they were invited to say which school they would like their child to attend. They had a first, second and third choice. The city endeavoured to meet that choice in terms of the places that were available. When the selective system was abandoned, the city of Manchester decided that it would continue the same system for comprehensive schools. It was decided that as pupils transferred from primary to secondary schools the parents would be given a choice of which school they would like their children to attend.

As a result, in 1969—the first year of comprehensive schooling–78 per cent. of Manchester parents obtained their first choice, while 16 per cent. obtained their second choice. In the following year 82 per cent. of parents obtained their first choice. Never since the introduction of comprehensive schooling in the city of Manchester has the figure of parents' first choice been less than 76 per cent. If the Opposition believe that choice can exist only in a selective system, they are greatly mistaken.

Dr. Hampson

We do not say that. The hon. Gentleman should listen.

Mr. Hatton

Manchester is not a small city. Each year an average of 5,500 pupils are transferred from the primary to the secondary system. Appeals machinery exists in the city of Manchester. Parents can appeal to the local education authority if they feel that the choice is not a satisfactory one.

Mr. Shelton

Is the appeal from the decision of the local education authority to another committee of that authority, or to an independent body?

Mr. Hatton

In the first instance parental wishes are dealt with. Later, if parents are not satisfied, they have the opportunity to have their case considered by the full committee, which endeavours to meet parental wishes. About 5,500 pupils are transferred each year, but only hundreds of appeals are made. In many cases, as the figures I have given indicate, a substantial proportion of the appeals are successful.

On the question of parental wishes, the hon. Member is seeking to take us backwards, not forwards. The opportunities will increase greatly as the development of non-selective secondary education continues within the education system.

I turn now to the part of the Bill which gives parents rights to be represented on school boards and governing and managing bodies of schools. It is certainly the experience in my city that, generally, the great majority of members who have served on boards of this kind have been parents. Many members of local authorities send their children to the maintained schools and take a continual interest in them. This matter does not need an amendment of the Education Act if it is to be developed. We see it every day, in terms of meetings of governors and managers of schools throughout the country. Parents are interested, and take part in the proceedings of these bodies.

We should not be considering how we can devise some new kind of system to satisfy some parents who, in their hearts, want to retain a system of selection in the secondary schools. I want local education authorities to develop their secondary schools in such a way that the opportunities for the boys and girls who attend them are continually expanded and widened.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

As roughly eight hon. Members are anxious to take part in the debate I shall appeal for five-minute speeches, because the winding-up speeches will begin at about 3.30 p.m.

3.12 p.m.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

It is extraordinary that every time we debate education the Labour Party shows its obsession with the structural reorganisation of the system. Labour Members cannot get away from comprehensive schools and selection. The Pavlovian dogs did not have a better system of reflexes than they have. One hon. Member said that there had been a revolution in the way that parents had been involved, but the opportunities of parents in this country to have a say in what goes on in schools are minor compared to those in many other countries. Our system has many merits, but we place on the headmasters and staff of the schools almost full autonomy, and things do go on that parents are not even informed about, let alone consulted on.

We are therefore saying that we should try to devise some way of increasing parental involvement in our maintained schools. We are not concerned with the independent sector, and this is not an attack on comprehensive schools or anything else. This is a modest measure, incorporating some of the best practices of LEA's throughout the country. Some schools operate some of the practices, but others do not, so why should we not place obligations on them all, not involving cost, to bring about some improvement?

Today there is an anxious generation of parents in this country who are deeply concerned about some of the schools in their areas, and they are very concerned about where their children will end up. It is important to involve those parents. We have a major convert on our side in the Editor of The Times Educational Supplement, in the piece he has written this week. He points out the importance of the diversification, of a plurality of educational institutions, and of the need to have some sort of variety of system to match the variety of needs and potentials of children. He has given some examples of what goes on in America, where, parents having been given a say in the choice of schools within the State system, there has not been a cataclysmic collapse. Some make use of the system and others do not.

Why should it not be possible, within the comprehensive pattern, for a parent to say "My child is gifted in music or languages. The neighbourhood school is not very good in these subjects, but there is another school in the area which is very good. Cannot my child be transferred across the boundary into that school?"? I understand that it does happen sometimes. But not always. Some local bureaucrats dig in.

I fought a battle with the former West Riding education authority. It proved difficult to get a transfer in that instance. The new North Yorkshire authority has now agreed with me on this matter. Recently I visited the Mexborough grammar school—it is not a grammar school in the old sense—which has children attending from many different authorities. Students of 15, 16 and 17 are allowed to go there because they or their parents want that kind of school.

Why cannot we put an obligation on education authorities to take seriously the wishes of parents? Many authorities use the way that the Act is presently formulated automatically to shove aside parents' wishes. The bureaucrats in the local eduction offices often do not want to know. They do not want to be troubled by parents. It is too easy at the moment to say that it is too expensive. We are attempting to switch the onus through the medium of the Bill.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that parents want the best for their children, that the problem facing us in this situation is that inevitably certain schools are identified with particular localities, and that to promise the vast majority of parents that they can have the choice of the best schools, when it is only a pint pot for a quart, is a phoney prospectus?

Dr. Hampson

I want people to have the right to have a say in their children's education. These are the children of parents, not of the State or of the teachers in the schools. Let us listen to the parents. Let the local authorities listen. Let us see what happens. All too often in so many matters which come before the House we concentrate on the difficulties of hypothetical situations. Let us show the will and get down to testing this matter and see what happens. I believe that we shall get a sane and sensible response from parents. Since the old form of selection is dying out—and I welcome it; I have never supported selection at 11-plus—it is important that there should be an independent appeals procedure because there are so many different methods for putting children into different schools. It is important that parents should have the right to say that a certain school is not suitable for their children. We have taken the practice of some areas and seek to apply it to all. Let us, when talking of education and of doing something about the structure, be flexible and get away from rigidity in all its forms.

The Bill can be amended in various parts—for example, the composition and procedure of the appeal tribunal. It might be better to have a percentage of parents on governing bodies rather than a certain number, as in the Bill.

We welcome the inquiry set up by the Government under pressure from this side of the House. Over the years hon. Gentlemen opposite have ignored the matter. Now they have come round to it. The Secretary of State had to come to the House and say something about standards in a debate which we initiated. Having pooh-poohed the whole idea time after time, eventually he had to have something to get the headlines.

I am glad that we have had a debate on this matter today. Earlier, it looked suspiciously as though there would be an attempt to push us right out of the schedule of the House today. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) went on at considerable length, even to Mr. Speaker's concern.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not waste any more time on what went before.

Dr. Hampson

Anyway, I am delighted that the Minister sees the debate as being important. That is demonstrated by the large team of people who have been assembled in the Official Box today. I am delighted at that and I hope that he will respond to our proposals as his right hon. Friend did to the inquiry about governing boards. Why cannot we have parents on governing boards? Inquiries take a long time. Look at the inquiry into the cost of bussing and the number of times the Minister has to say that he is still consulting. It could take ages for an inquiry to report on the management and governing of schools. A lot of local authorities are dragging their feet in the matter of having parents on governing boards. Let us give them a kick and get them moving by passing this Bill.

What we are testing today is whether the Government are prepared to see common sense, to have a flexible educational system and to accept measures which come within the spirit of the 1944 Act, or whether they will demonstrate to the country that they are ideological to the nth degree and are not concerned with parents who are concerned about their children, but will pursue narrow dogmatic ends regardless. The Government are set on an educational pattern which is rigid and from which they will not move. That is what it is all about, otherwise they would accept the Bill today and amend it in Committee. If it was passed it would help enormously to ease some of the anxieties of this generation of anxious parents.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

I do not think that anybody in this House will argue or disagree with the underlying motive of the measure, which is to involve parents in the education of their children. The question that arises is how far the Bill goes towards achieving that. In my opinion, it goes a very little way in that direction.

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) said that every time we debate education in this House Government Members bridle and bring in questions of comprehensive schools, and so on, but this is an important point in the whole debate, for the simple reason that the question of choice depends upon the education set-up in any borough.

I ask the House to consider the situation in my borough. It has all the choice in the world. We have grammar, comprehensive and secondary modern schools. Eventually, we shall get rid of the secondary modern schools, and if the Government do not do something about it we shall keep two selective, divisive grammar schools.

Where is the choice? The choice will depend entirely upon two factors. The first is whether a boy passes an examination at the age of 11 which will take him to a grammar school or to a comprehensive school. The second will be whether he happens to live in the neighbourhood of a particular comprehensive school when the complete reorganisation has taken place.

That is the situation in my borough, and I am sure that it applies to many others. It makes nonsense of the whole idea of parental choice at this time. I know that choice is not left merely to schools. There is the question of the choice of subject and the fact that a parent finds that his child is not able to take, say, Chinese because the teaching of this subject is reserved to those in the C-stream, and something should be done about this.

The Bill attempts to deal with the grievances of parents by setting up tribunals. I cannot for the life of me see how a tribunal could do very much more than the local education authority can in any specific instance. The tribunal will consist of teachers, parents, and so on, but nothing is said in the Bill about the terms of reference. It is all extremely vague.

There is also the question of finance, which is skated over rather lightly. For the life of me I cannot see how a tribunal can take the place of the right of parents to appeal to the local authority when they have a grievance. I have often had parents come to see me in August or September because they have not been given the school of their choice. If the place is not there because the school is already fully subscribed, I cannot see how a tribunal can do anything about that.

Mr. William Shelton

In the first draft which I sent to the various bodies, I suggested that the appeal tribunal should be a committee of the local education authority, but the great majority of the teachers' bodies which replied said that they did not feel that it was suitable to appeal from one part of an authority to another part of the same authority. That is why I drafted my proposal in its present form.

Mr. Shaw

That does not get away from the point that whatever body is set up cannot be very effective in these cases.

The Bill has certain superficial attractions, if I may so put it. For example, Clause 3 would make it mandatory to have teacher and parent representatives on school boards. I agree with that now, and I have always agreed with it. Parents and teachers should be represented on the boards. I wish that this message had got through to my own authority, a Tory authority.

Dr. Hampson

Then pass the Bill.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

Give it a kick.

Mr. Shaw

I understand that this is Tory policy. It was expressed in the Tory manifesto. But although in the borough of Redbridge there is representation of parents, in an attenuated form, if I may say so, this does not apply to teachers, the idea being that teachers work in the schools and may, therefore, have an interest.

It is essential that more and more parents should be involved in the working of our schools. Unfortunately—I am sure that this is the experience of most teachers—it is difficult to bring in the very parents one wishes to become involved. There is always the articulate parent who is keen about the progress of his child, who comes to the school to speak to the teachers and the head teacher, but this is seldom true of the parent of the child who is not doing so well. This attitude may well have started at the time the child was a "failure" at the 11 plus—considered a failure not merely by the child itself but by the parents as well, who then gave up.

The answer to this problem is not to be found in the Bill. We must involve all kinds of parents, not merely the articulate, not merely those who make the biggest fuss at parent-teacher association meetings. The old saying is still true—one can take a horse to water but cannot make it drink. Indeed, it would be impossible to create a parent-teacher association in certain areas, and there must be other means of consultation. This purpose is not yet met, and I shall be interested to hear what other forms of consultation are available apart from those taking place today.

Somewhere along the line we must involve the parents of more difficult children. There has been reference already to truancy, vandalism, and the other ills of our time. We must involve the parents of these children, and I am quite sure that it will not be done through parent-teacher associations.

I see that you are anxious that we get on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I conclude in this way. The Bill has a certain attraction which is, shall I say—

Mr. Flannery


Mr. Shaw

No. not exactly specious. It has a certain attraction on the surface. Frankly, it adds nothing, or only very little to the objective that it sets itself.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I rise briefly to support my hon. Friend's Bill. I do so not only as a Member of Parliament and a school governor but, more particularly, as one of those involved in the Bill—as a parent with three children at local authority schools>lb/> I draw attention to Clause 5. At about this time of year many parents with children of 11-plus age receive a list of schools to which their children may be sent—whether it is a selective or a nonselective system is immaterial. What do those parents know of the schools?

Some schools may hold meetings at which parents have the opportunity to find out what is going on. Apart from that, they learn from hearsay, from friends and neighbours. Some people in my constituency think that one school in the area is the best and they fight to send their children to it. Others would not allow their children there in any circumstances. That sort of situation is bound to arise.

As much information as possible should be given to parents so that they have information on which to make their choice. There is a strong case for Clause 5, which requires local authorities to publish prospectuses for schools within their area.

In addition, I support Clause 2. After allocation, which is bound to be arbitrary, there are all sorts of difficulties and problems with parents who do not have their first choice. My son was allocated to a school which was not among the first three of my choice. What follows? There are attempts—often abortive—by parents to get hold of someone at the education office. If they are successful, embarrassing and distressing scenes may follow. There may follow letters by worried parents to councillors and Members of Parliament, and interviews at our surgeries, in an effort by the parents to get their way.

All this could be avoided if there were an appeals procedure to an independent body. We cannot satisfy everyone, but if parents were able to put their view to an independent body, they would feel that they had had a fair hearing. I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I should like to join in the con- gratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) on giving the House the opportunity, however briefly, to discuss this most important subject. I regret that we have had such a short debate. I hope that the Government's supporters will resist any thoughts they might have of talking the Bill out and that they will give it an opportunity to go to Committee, where full and detailed discussion can take place.

The Bill is wholly in accord with Conservative basic principles, and, for all I know, it may also be in accord with basic Socialist principles, because the basic principle that is involved is that the right to educate children belongs to the parent and not to the State. I hope that the Under-Secretary will agree with that, although he is looking puzzled. That is not a principle of Socialism, but it may well be a principle that the Labour Party could support, because to be a Socialist and to be a member of the Labour Party is not always the same thing.

Parents want a say in the education of their children. They want some influence and some choice. They want their voice to be heard. This right is fundamental to human nature. It is essential to people's self respect.

It is one of the paradoxes of the twentieth century that as society grows more affluent it grows more impersonal and loses its sense of community. Parents are no longer content to be treated as cyphers, as some kind of painful prerequisite for children, and as nothing else. They want to be listened to, and they want to exercise the most creative function that most human beings have, which is to bring up another generation and influence them for good in the future. Although many local education authorities take this into account, some officials do not. I have had experience of parents being brushed aside as though they were irrelevant pests.

The Bill could have a profound effect on basic attitudes. After all, the law is a creative instrument as well as a reflective one. It reflects consensus sometimes in a community, but in other cases it can create new attitudes. The Race Relations Act is an Act of that nature which created new attitudes in society.

My hon. Friend spoke with characteristic modesty of his Bill as a minor Bill. He underestimates the importance of the proposals he puts forward, because this could be the beginning of a Copernican term in the education system so that there was a revolution in attitudes, a shift in the balance of power back to the parent again. The shorthand "parent power" has been used. I think that parent power is a very good thing. The Bill seeks in practice to give that idea some reality.

Clause 1, which sets out to amend Section 76 of the Education Act 1974 so that children can be effectively educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, is a very constructive and reasonably drafted clause. Section 76 lays down a general principle that children are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. Apparently law is a science, unlike philosophy, where there can be a universal without a particular. This general principle has been treated by the courts as a pious aspiration and nothing else.

The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend is intended to make that general principle an effective principle of action by shifting the burden of proof away from the parents, who have to prove something positively about their wishes, to saying that that is no longer necessary and that the norm now is that children should be educated in accordance with the wishes of the parents unless it can be shown positively that it is unreasonable to do so on the ground of the cost involved. That is an important change.

I say to the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) and for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) that parental wishes is a much wider concept than merely a choice between a grammar and a comprehensive school. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Rippon (Dr. Hampson) said. Hon. Members opposite must get away from the obsession with the choice between grammar and comprehensive schools. It is an important choice but it is not the only choice. It is part of a wider range of choices.

After all, parents want a choice between different types of comprehensive schools, for example. They want a choice between a school that streams and a school that does not stream. They may want a choice between a single-sex school and a mixed school, and they are entitled to that. They may want a choice between a religious school and a non-religious school. They may want a choice between a large school and a small school. They may want a choice between a school which has a good reputation and another in the same locality which has a bad one. They may want their child to be educated at the same school as his brother or sister. They may know that one school teaches a subject particularly well because it has teachers who specialise in that subject, and they may want that school for their children.

Mr. Bryan Davies

As for range of choice, is it not the case that parents achieve a high degree of satisfaction on all the points mentioned by the hon. Gentleman but that the crucial choice—namely, that the majority will go for the best school—is not realisable within the framework of the Education Act nor within the terms of the amendment proposed by the Bill?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support. I agree with him that we shall not get complete freedom of choice through this. In fact, we shall never get complete freedom of choice: it is an impossibility. It is a question of degree. We can move towards it. The Bill is an important move towards achieving it.

The Bill would set up an appeals tribunal. This again is of great importance, because parents want to have their voice heard and they want to be satisfied that their case has been heard impartially, that they have had a fair deal. That is why my hon. Friend's proposals are so important, so that this tribunal should be independent and should be seen to be independent. Of course, I imagine that my hon. Friend is not wedded to the proposals in detail. They could be amended in Committee, and we look forward to having the whole expertise of the Under-Secretary's Department at our disposal.

Clause 3, dealing with parent governors and teacher governors, is most interesting. It would provide all over the country for the election of parents and teachers to governing bodies, not in the attenuated form which apparently prevails in the borough of Redbridge, according to the hon. Member for Ilford, South. Incidentally, I do not know what a parent in an attenuated form is! This would extend what is the good practice in certain authorities and make it a general rule.

If we look at the independent sector we find that one of the reasons why so many schools are good in that sector is that they have effective governing bodies which take an active interest in their schools. This is so. The Under-Secretary looks dubious and worried at the same time, but it is, in fact, the reason why there are a number of good schools. Why not look at what is good in the independent sector and see how the same results can be achieved within the maintained sector, which must be our principal concern? Through this proposal we would create a sense of community and of identification between parents and the local schools.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South said "You can lead a horse to the water but you cannot make him drink." I imagine that he claims no originality for that phrase. We can meet that objection in the Bill because we say that the governors should be elected by parents who have children at the school. That is a most important part of my hon. Friend's Bill, because that would involve all the parents.

We should also look at the role of governors and their powers with regard to the curriculum and the appointment of teachers. We want them more involved, not less involved. There are provisions relating to consultation between the schools and parent-teacher associations. A method of consultation only is proposed, of which the parent-teacher association could be one form. A most important provision relates to school prospectuses, so that the information is available to enable one to make an informed and intelligent choice.

The principles on which my hon. Friend has based his Bill are absolutely right, and I congratulate him on the workmanlike job that he has made of it, on the extensive consultation which has taken place with the various associa- tions and the trouble that he has taken in drafting the Bill. Of course, it is not perfect; nobody says it is, but it is on a reasonable basis to take to the Committee and improve it there.

I know what the Under-Secretary is going to say when he replies, not because I am peering at his notes over the Dispatch Box—his writing is practically illegible—but, having been a Minister, I know that his civil servants will have given him a marvellous brief saying how wonderful the idea is in principle but how impossible it all is in practice. I have lived with those attitudes and I know what they arc, and it is remarkable how they can be changed. What is needed is an assertion of will on the part of the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State. If that will is asserted, we shall see that the impossible immediately become very possible. The impracticable is changed into practicality in an evening. I have seen that happen.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will encourage the initiative so rightly taken by my hon. Friend. That is what private Members are for—to take an initiative, to push forward the debate and to push forward measures when the whole ponderous machine of the Government is caught in a sort of paralysis.

The Under-Secretary is not without imagination—on his better days. I hope that he will exercise that imaginative sympathy and empathy today, and give the Bill a fair wind. If he does, he will earn the gratitude of millions of parents throughout the country, and we shall be glad to share the credit with him.

3.45 p.m.

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

I am always at my best at about 4 p.m. on a Friday, because it is nearing the time when I can go to Kings Cross and escape to the North. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) for his comments.

We have been discussing an important feature of our education service. I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) on the work he has done.

I do not have time to deliver the speech that was prepared for me, but I want to deal with one or two important issues in a serious way. I know that the hon. Member for Chelmsford has done the job that I am doing now, but I believe that he is far too pessimistic about parental involvement in schools. There is more direct parental involvement in Britain's schools today than at any time in the history of our education service. I can remember when there were notices telling parents that they must not pass through particular gates, and so on. Now we have involvement but not as much as I would want.

I believe that in the next decade we shall have much more parental involvement, teacher participation and community involvement in the schools. I am all for it, but the House understands very well that the Government of the day have a duty to provide full-time education for all our children, rich and poor, those in inner cities, and those in remote rural areas. We want to give parents as much say as possible in the kind of education their children are offered.

Everybody knows that, whatever we do, at least 75 per cent. of the children will go to the school that is allocated to them. That is a fact of life. The essence of the Bill, which comes from the Tory manifesto—I welcome an effort to honour their pledge—is choice of school. Choice of school is a difficult operation. I do not run away from the difficulties. I do not believe that the Bill deals with them effectively. I do not think that it will advance the cause of parents.

Clause 1 would amend Section 76 of the 1944 Education Act. Parents are becoming more and more dissatisfied with the education service. I do not complain about that; I welcome it. I want parents to be dissatisfied and to pressurise our people, because the way to get rid of the dissatisfaction caused by children's being allocated to schools with which parents are not happy is not to have competition between schools. It is not to have a pecking order in a particular local education authority area and then to allow certain articulate and interested parents to have an advantage. The only way to deal with this fundamental problem is to practise positive discrimination in favour of those schools that in the past have had less than their fair share of the resources—to give them extra teachers, extra equipment. better buildings, and so on.

A great deal has been said about Section 76 and other sections relating to choice of school. As Sections 76, 37 and 68, which relate to the question of choice of school, have been administered by successive Secretaries of State, the wish of parents must always prevail unless the authority can show that the wish is unreasonable. The burden of proof is on the authority. I have been associated with many cases in the Department which bear that out.

A great deal has been said about Section 76. It is a difficult provision. My authority is no less than Lord Butler, who was associated with the 1944 Act. Speaking in another place, last year, he said: I drafted that section myself…it was very carefully drafted, because in my opinion it must be said, if one speaks honestly on this matter, that you cannot absolutely assure to every parent in the country exactly the education he wants for his child owing very often to circumstances of where the parents live, which authority they may be in, to what school they may have proximity, and so forth. Therefore the words were brought out that we had to have regard to the parent's wishes. That is as far as any legislation can possibly go".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10th July 1974; Vol. 353, c. 590.] That is an apposite comment on this Bill.

There is no doubt that the main contention in today's debate has been the question of choice of school. I understand the excitement of Opposition Members about the question of different types of school and the argument and controversy going on in the education service and in the community. It is not possible to have parallel systems of education, although the Opposition continually allege that it is. We can have either a genuine comprehensive system or a selective system. The argument is that a selective system narrows choice. Once we defend a direct grant grammar school or any kind of selective school we in effect select and reject.

Let us suppose that a parent says, "I want my child to go to a school with a good academic curriculum where he can follow O level and A level courses". That would be a very reasonable request. Many such requests have been referred to us. In the past five years we have never had fewer than 1,000 choice-of-school cases in the Department. The number is increasing every year. Most of them are settled amicably between the authority and the parent, with my Department intervening, and no order is necessary. In the past year we have issued directions in respect of eight authorities, involving 25 children.

There is therefore no question of rubber-stamping what the authority wants. All the merits and demerits are considered in cases relating to Section 76. I assure the House that every care is taken.

Suppose a parent says "My child is going to the grammar school because that is the only school that offers the kind of course I want my child to follow". However many tribunals and however many appeals procedures there are, in the end that parent is not satisfied because unless the child manages the 11-plus procedure successfully, he will be sent to a school which is not considered suitable for children taking the O level and A level courses.

When the hon. Member for Chelmsford argued this case in the debate last July he spent most of his time talking about the independent sector.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is not so.

Mr. Armstrong

I am talking about the debate we had last July.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House. That simply is not true. Although there was a passage in my speech which dealt with independent schools, if the hon. Gentleman takes out a slide rule he will be able to calculate that that was a minor part of my speech and that the major part of it dealt with other matters. This is all irrelevant anyway; let us not waste time on it.

Mr. Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman chose to raise it. In that debate I said:

"In a speech which lasted less than half an hour, he devoted 17 minutes to the private sector."—[Official Report, 3rd July 1974; Vol. 876, c. 458.]
Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is not evidence of what I said; it is evidence of what the Under-Secretary of State said. The fact that he was mistaken then is evidence that he is mistaken again today.

Mr. Armstrong

I invite hon. Members to read Hansard. On that occasion the hon. Gentleman said that the reason why the Conservative Party valued independent schools was that they gave an extra choice to parents. To how many parents? To which parents?

The main clauses of the Bill deal with the choice of school. The only way to give real choice to parents—parents should have a choice in the education they want for their children—is to make sure that children go to a school that offers a full range of choice and are not labelled and categorised before they even enter a school. A genuine comprehensave school offers far more choice to far more parents than is offered by any selective system.

I turn now to the question of tribunals. The present structure is that when a child is allocated to a secondary school the parent, naturally, has access to the school. If the parent is not satisfied, he has access to the democratically elected councillors who are members of the local education authority. Those councillors are accountable to parents and to the electorate. If parents are not satisfied they write to their Member of Parliament, as I know very well. Half the correspondence I receive comes from Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents whose children have been allocated to schools which the parents do not wish them to attend.

The matter then comes to the Secretary of State. Discussions are held with local authorties. It has been said that never at any time in the last 30 years has a court come down against the local authority in favour of the parent, but that is a tribute to local authorities and to the work of my Department. We make sure that wherever possible parents' wishes are fulfilled. In the nature of things, local authorities have difficulties in satisfying everyone.

It is interesting that the Opposition always say that central Government—

Mr. Shelton

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Armstrong

It is interesting that the Bill should come from the Opposition, who are always preaching throughout the country that local authorities should be given more powers and more autonomy and that less power should be concentrated in central Government. The only way that one can get proper parental involvement is by the willing cooperation of parents. One cannot impose democracy—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.