HC Deb 11 March 1975 vol 888 cc271-8
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Reg Prentice)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement on the future of the direct grant schools.

The Government have decided that the time has come to implement the pledge in the Labour Party Election Manifesto to stop the present system of direct grant schools. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I are making this statement to indicate the action we propose to take.

Grant to schools which are unwilling to enter the maintained school system or which it is not practicable to absorb into the system will be phased out, starting in September 1976. Arrangements to safeguard the interests of pupils already in the schools will be made. Meanwhile, I do not propose to make any change in the level of grant.

This decision follows necessarily from the Government's commitment to end all forms of selection for secondary education. The direct grant schools have made an important contribution to the national system of secondary education while that was organised on selective lines, and some of them provided places needed by local education authorities. I hope that as many of them as possible will accept that they can best continue to serve the public by making the adjustments necessary to become an integral part of the local system of comprehensive education as maintained schools. I hope also that local education authorities will recognise the advantages of such a solution and will do all they can to facilitate the transition for schools which are willing to make it.

As a first step, we shall discuss the future arrangements in greater detail with the representatives of the direct grant schools and of the local education authorities. In particular, we shall discuss, in relation to schools willing to become maintained, the problems of capital debt and sub-standard buildings, matters arising from the need to protect the salary and conditions of service of existing staff, and any special issues that might arise because of the existence of a boarding element at some of the schools. We shall also clarify with them the procedure for phasing out the grants and related features of the present system.

Subsequently the two Departments will get in touch with individual schools, and their local education authorities, to enable decisions to be reached about their future as soon as possible. I believe that it would be generally agreed that from the point of view of all concerned it is now desirable to move as speedily as possible to avoid a protracted period of uncertainty. My aim will be to help the schools reach a decision in principle by the end of the summer term.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Secretary of State realise that his statement today will be treated by the educational world as an unprecedented step of educational vandalism, that it will lower educational standards, that it will decrease parental choice and that, by driving many direct grant schools into the independent sector, it will deprive parents of modest means of educational opportunity?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman give us up-to-date figures of the amounts which parents save the taxpayer by paying fees, which may well be more than £20 million a year? Where will he find that? Where will he find the £3 million to pay off the debt of the Roman Catholic direct grant schools, and where will he find the necessary money to provide places for these children where the schools go independent?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman note that the Opposition pledge to reopen the direct grant school list still stands and that we reaffirm it today? Will he note also that we shall rebuild the bridge between the independent and the maintained sector which he has so rashly sought to blow up today, and that we shall see that the schools are not only restored but restored on a legal basis which will make it impossible for them to be destroyed again by ministerial edict?

Mr. Prentice

The House will note the hon. Gentleman's pledge, as he calls it. The only appropriate answer to that is that chance will be a fine thing. The fact is that this is a logical part of the move from a selective secondary system to a comprehensive secondary system. I submit that it always has been an anomaly that there should be subsidies out of public funds to what basically are independent schools. But that becomes all the more anomalous if such a subsidy is continued indefinitely after the Government and this House have decided on a national policy of moving towards the comprehensive system. That does not reduce standards. The hon. Gentleman knows or ought to know that up and down the country there are thousands of boys and girls getting better opportunities and reaching higher standards because we have moved along the road towards a comprehensive system.

As for the financial implications, there are both savings to public expenditure and costs to public expenditure. There will be a saving of the money spent on the grant. There will be costs involved in the sense that local authorities will need in some cases to provide places at the ratepayers' expense which at the moment they get by a different route. There will be a number of items on both sides of the balance sheet, difficult to assess in detail. All the studies that we have made suggest that there will be a very small net balance— either a net cost or a net saving— one way or the other.

Mr. Marks

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Government supporters welcome his speedy implementation of the programme on which we all fought and won the General Election? Will he continue to stress that direct grant schools still have a choice— that they do not have to go independent— and will he remind the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there are parts of the Labour Party Manifesto referring to the charitable status and tax relief of the independent schools?

Mr. Prentice

On my hon. Friend's latter point, yes, we have this in mind. My hon. Friend will not expect me to enlarge on that today. Certainly it is our intention that this clear choice should be presented to the schools. We hope that each school will be able to make a decision in principle by the end of the summer and choose whether to go into the maintained system, which is the route that we would prefer for as many of them as possible, or whether to go fully independent, in which case the grant will be phased out over a number of years in the way that I have described.

Sir G. Sinclair

Will the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition believe that this will be a great cutting down of educational opportunities for many bright boys and girls and for many families of slender means throughout the country? Will he accept also that this will bring great anxiety to parents, great dislocation in the schools, and very great dislocation to local authorities which may have to face another reorganisation without any money to spend on it?

Mr. Prentice

When speaking of standards, the hon. Gentleman makes the same kind of assumption as has been made over many years in the changeover from a selective to a comprehensive system. The fears to which he refers have proved to be unfounded over the years. During the 10 years or so in which this country has been moving from a selective system to what is now 60 per cent. comprehensive in England and 85 per cent. comprehensive in Wales, academic standards have been rising. I see that as part of the process leading on to higher standards and greater opportunities for more children, and not fewer.

As for the hon. Gentleman's reference to the dislocation of local education authorities, I think that many of them will welcome the opportunity because they will rightly regard the continued existence of this sector as meaning that their plans to go comprehensive cannot be fully realised unless the process is complete.

Mr. Christopher Price

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his announcement will be welcome not only to all Government supporters but to many Conservative chairmen of local education authorities—

Mr. Cormack


Mr. Price

—who have been trying to go comprehensive for some time, and who put the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) in his place when he tried to lead them into revolt a few weeks ago?

Since there will be complications here, will my right hon. Friend consider issuing model schemes to local education authorities so that the experience of those direct grant schools— especially those Catholic schools— which have already made plans to go comprehensive may be available to all local education authorities in the attempt to integrate direct grant schools with the comprehensive system?

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend was right to make his first point. The ticking-off which the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is reported to have had from leaders of Conservative groups in education throughout the country was no surprise to those of us who realise that among those Conservatives who understand education there are some who are becoming increasingly convinced of the need for comprehensive reorganization, and many have been getting on with it.

I shall consider the second point made by my hon. Friend. What I have in mind is that within a few weeks, following discussions with local education authorities and the schools themselves, I shall issue to schools and authorities more details of the way in which this transaction can be effected.

Mr. Freud

We on the Liberal bench accept the implementation of the Labour Party's manifesto as it relates to direct grant schools, and we welcome the promised safeguards for existing pupils.

Mr. Cormack


Mr. Freud

I wonder whether the Secretary of State will answer three questions. First, will he give some guarantee about the continued academic excellence of those direct grant schools which go comprehensive? Secondly, will he ensure that local education authorities will have sufficient funds to take over the direct grant schools? Finally, when he says that his aim will be to help schools reach a decision in principle, will he reconsider his dateline, because many schools will want to think carefully about going independent?

Mr. Prentice

On the first point, I see no reason to assume any decline in the standard of academic excellence in any of these schools as a result of this decision — no reason at all. On the second point, we shall be discussing with local education authorities within the next few weeks the details of the processes by which they will be encouraged and helped to absorb these schools and fit them in with their local plans. We shall be discussing the financial aspects, among other things.

On the question of the dateline, I see no reason why each school should not decide in principle by the end of this summer which route it wants to take. There may be a need for a further period for fitting in with local plans. That will depend partly on the pace of local authorities on going comprehensive, because we want these schools to come into the local authority system wherever appropriate as part of a comprehensive system. There may be some delay in the date on which they become integrated because of the pace at which the local authority concerned is making its own plans.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Government Members will welcome his statement, but that for a number of direct grant schools there is a particular problem because of the nature of their finances and the way in which they are associated with religious societies? Can he assure the House that in his negotiations on this matter of comprehensive schools he will bear that point very much in mind and treat the schools generously because of the time, dedication and money spent by many religious societies in giving education to many who would not otherwise have had it?

Mr. Prentice

Those points will be taken into account. Many of the direct grant schools, particularly those associated with religious foundations, the majority of which I hope will come into the maintained system, have a certain amount of accumulated debt. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said it amounted to £3 million, but the estimate that I have had is £2½million. This would need to be serviced, and it would be one element to be taken into account in the pluses and minuses of the financial balance to which I referred earlier.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that one of the results of his announcement this afternoon will be that he will have ranged against him the full gamut of education opinion represented on these benches, including those who, against some hostility, have stood up for existing and future comprehensive schools, both on the ground of standards and because he has no additional finance available for increasing these standards?

As there has been some reference to what was a private meeting, and a report of a private meeting, at which certain things are alleged to have been said to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), will the right hon. Gentleman take it from one who was at that meeting that there was no criticism at all from Labour and Conservative Members present of my hon. Friend's stance on comprehensive schools?

Mr. Prentice

I am sorry to hear that, because the meeting was obviously less enlightened than I was given to understand.

Hon. Members


Mr. Prentice

I shall not withdraw

. Be that as it may, there are many within the Conservative Party, among whom I should have included the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), who have shown a sympathetic and constructive attitude towards comprehensive reorganisation but they seem to fail to realise that as long as this selective system exists side by side with the maintained comprehensive system the latter cannot be fully comprehensive. It is essential to the completion of a comprehensive system that the direct grant system as we know it should be phased out.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw what has been shown to be a completely inaccurate account of the private meeting to which he referred?

Mr. Prentice

I was giving the Conservative Party representatives there more credit than they apparently deserved. I understood that many of them were saying that in their localities they were working at their own comprehensive schemes and believed in them. If that is not so I am sorry to hear it and would certainly withdraw what I said in the sense that I may have been misinformed, but I wish that the original accounts were true.

I have met a great number of Conservative members of local education committees throughout the country, including more than one chairman, who have said that when the right hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was Secretary of State for Education and Science she turned down their plans for comprehensive education and have asked whether if they re-submitted them to me I would have another look at them because they were sure that the right hon. Lady was wrong in turning them down in the past.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I say that I accept that generous withdrawal.