HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc784-92

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Terry Walker (Kingswood)

The Kingswood constituency has many education problems which are of grave concern to the teaching staff, pupils and parents in the area. The Kingswood constituency was the southernmost part of old Gloucestershire County Council area. Because of its geographical position it tended to suffer some neglect. While some new schools were provided by way of replacement over the years from time to time they were nowhere near sufficient, bearing in mind the terriffic population bulge in the Kingswood area over the past 20 years.

Therefore, the task facing the new education authority of Avon when it took office last April was a big one. Whatever criticism I shall make of it, I want it to be understood that I recognise that it had a big problem when it took office.

Avon, which is a Tory-controlled local authority, has made many basic mistakes. The chief of these has been that decisions have been made without reference to staff and parents in the area. As the Minister well knows, the county council has informed his Department that it does not propose to take up any part of its nursery education building allocation for either this year or next year. Therefore, the essential nursery education is not being provided within the county. This decision is a scandal and an outrage. The people in the area feel let down by the shortsightedness of the Avon Tories in this matter.

I hope that the Government will not hesitate to let Avon know their feelings. I have told parents and staff who have come to me about the matter to make their representations known to the authority. The Labour minority group on the council has had discussions with me. If we had been in power on the council, Labour councillors would have accepted the allocation from the Government as they recognise the necessity of providing sound nursery education within the area.

The other great mistake made by the county of Avon was not to take the full allocation of teachers when it became an authority. That has gravely affected infant and primary education in the county.

A bitter pill to swallow has been the problem of the rising fives. Many parents are mystified to find that their children must wait until they are almost five and a half before they start school. That happened to my youngest son only last year. Classrooms are available in the schools, and the children would be able to attend if one more member of staff were appointed. People feel let down. I am sure that the full complement of teachers could have been appointed. That was another of the great mistakes made by the Avon Tories. My two older children were in school before their fifth birthday, but unfortunately that is no longer possible. At the St. Stephen's School, Sound-well, and the Bromley Heath School, Downend, there have been protest meetings of parents, and petitions have been raised spontaneously.

Primary education has also suffered from overcrowded classes because there are not enough teachers to go round. In some schools there is a shortage of accommodation. At the Tynings School at Kingswood one class meets regularly in the entrance hall. It is no wonder parents are worried. Due to pressure put on the local authority by the parents and myself a Terrapin building has arrived, but, true to form, there is no furniture for it and there is no heating. The school, which was built for about 280 pupils will have more than 400 after Easter. The facilities there are not adequate and the hall and playground are not big enough.

The existing schools are barriers to the plans for a fully comprehensive system being implemented at once. They were built mainly to perpetuate a grammar and secondary school set-up. That is why they are unable to convert quickly. If money were available, we could have comprehensive education in a short time. I am sure that that is what everyone now wants.

There are three five-form entry schools in the Kingswood area—Grange School for Boys, Grange School for Girls and the Kingsfield School, which is still selective in some respects. Those are the schools that we are most worried about. We earnestly hope that they will become seven-form or eight-form entry, with a sixth-form college, and that the Kingsfield School will be rebuilt. The school is mainly a collection of First World War army huts.

To meet the bulge in the area, the new school at Hanham must be proceeded with as soon as possible, because after September many of my young constituents where I live in Hanham will have to make the long trek to Keynsham, formerly part of Somerset and now part of Avon, because the schools in the area are overcrowded and there are no places for them.

In addition, schools such as Rodway School badly need decoration, and precious little is allowed for it in the estimates. Only last year, after pressure from the parent-teacher association and myself, badly-needed fire escapes were put in, but not before newspaper articles caused a public outcry. Such an outcry should not have been necessary to enable urgent work to be carried out in schools.

The Sir Bernard Lovell School at Oldland Common is also a great problem. It was planned as a 10-form entry by the Gloucestershire County Council and has been cut to a seven-form entry by Avon without consultation with staff, parents or governors. Not only parents but 68 of the teaching staff protested to Avon because the career structure at the Sir Bernard Lovell School was shattered by the decision to make the school only a seven-form entry. We need a truly comprehensive—not selective—system to replace the present hotch-potch which was left by the previous local authority.

I fully recognise that all these matters will require the expenditure of a good deal of money. This is why I want to stress the capital programme. If all these matters were to be put right obviously money would need to be expended, but the capital programme by the Avon County Council amounting to£2.05 million, including minor works, is not sufficient. New counties such as Avon need special capital. I know that many Labour Members were extremely worried when local government was reorganised. They felt that new counties such as Avon, covering a vast area taking in Somerset and Gloucestershire, would require a great deal of capital. We made pleas on that score at the time. Now the time is upon us, but if confidence in the system is to be restored £16 million is needed over the next three years.

The people I represent want this money to be spent. As I go round my constituency people are puzzled and say "Now that we have a Labour Government, surely things will change soon." It is no good the Department of Education and Science or I myself saying that we do not take responsibility for these matters. It must be of concern to everybody to ensure that the resources and brains of our young people are not wasted. Greater supervision of educational facilities must take place and more resources must be put into education. Indeed, a revolution is necessary.

The education of children is a partnership between school and parent. That is why parents should be consulted and encouraged to participate in decision-making. I deeply regret that it has not been the practice of Avon to consult people about forthcoming changes. Parents are demanding a better deal for their children. Parents, pupils and staff are co-operating in our area as never before. The future of our country is in the hands of the young. I have great personal hopes for this country, but I believe that we must put everything we can into a system of education based not on selectivity but on equal opportunity for all boys and girls in all parts of the nation.

4.18 p.m.

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

By the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) on raising an important issue which affects his constituency.

I share some of my hon. Friend's sentiments. I am old-fashioned about education in the sense that I believe that educational services should be the spearhead in ironing out inequalities and injustices and in advancing the quality of life generally. I would not dissent in any way from my hon. Friend's remarks. I hope that I shall give him adequate answers on some of the difficult problems which he has raised.

The Avon authority shares with a great number of authorities unique problems following local government reorganisation. That authority now has educational responsibility for an area which, in the days before reorganisation, was served by four separate local education authorities. The task in creating a single administrative unit which provides educational services for a population in excess of 900,000 has been formidable. Furthermore, at a time of economic difficulty and restraints on capital building the authority has faced a heavy burden.

Most of our building resources are allocated on what we term "basic need criteria". This year the 1975–76 programme provides for just over£139 million to be spent on the capital cost of school buildings. Of that sum, only£4.3 million is allocated for replacements or improvements. The remainder of the sum will provide schools for children who would otherwise not have a school roof over their heads.

I visit many areas. Indeed, I have visited the Avon area. There are many schools which I should like to see replaced immediately and which should have been bulldozed down years ago. In the present circumstances of economic restraint we have had to divert well over 90 per cent. of our allocation towards basic need. This year we have made a blanket allocation—which I know is not enough—to each authority, so that they may decide where the real need exists, because we believe that each authority knows that better than we do. Therefore, it is for them to decide their own priorities.

I do not wish to mislead the House into thinking that we are giving the local authorities an easy task, because what they want to do is far more than the allocation will permit, and I hope that my hon. Friend will view the activities of the authorities in the light of those restraints which I have indicated.

I understand that the £2.05 million provided in the programme for 1975–76 is subject to discussion by the local authority. There is a project in the 1974–75 programme to enlarge the Kings-field School, which forms part of the authority's total major works programme of £1.6 million, and which will add 400 places to the school's recognised accommodation. We are now awaiting from the authority notification by the end of this month of how it proposes to use the £2.05 million. The advice and experience of my Department is always available to assist local authorities in making the best use of the resources that have been allocated.

I wish to say a word about the nursery provision. 1 have been in the education service all my life. I have come to the conclusion that the most neglected part of the education service has been preschool provision. I believe that that is the greatest educational advance which we can foster. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children will have missed out by the time they reach the age of five. They are also-rans because of neglect before the age of five. Therefore those children—who are "Born to Fail"—can be compensated for the inadequate background and environment in which they are growing only by the provision of pre-school education. That is why, despite all the economic restraints, the Government have preserved the nursery school programme.

Therefore it was with some distress that we learned from the Avon Authority that not only was it not taking up the 1974–75 nursery building allocation but it was also not taking up the 1975–76 allocation. There have been a number of requests for the nursery provision allocation to be used in the other parts of the education sector—that is for primary and secondary school buildings. We have resisted them on the educational grounds that I have put forward because we think that the development of nursery provision is a very high priority.

Therefore authorities such as Avon which say that they are not prepared to use their allocations are seeing those allocations given to other authorities which are eager to provide this opportunity for pre-school education. This is a matter for my hon. Friend and for parents, teachers and others interested in the education service to pursue with their own authorities.

I want to say a few words about secondary reorganisation. A number of authorities have said that they are anxious to go comprehensive, and the response from Avon is favourable in the sense that its reply to our 4/74 Circular indicates that it wants to abolish selection. But the injection of massive resources in order to go comprehensive is not possible. We have said to authorities that we believe that getting rid of selection of any kind in secondary education is the first priority for educational advance. Therefore, it is for every authority to examine all its resources—teacher resources and building resources—and to submit plans to the Secretary of State so that we can get rid of selection and have genuine comprehensive reorganisation.

There are great difficulties. It has been reported that I have said that buildings do not matter. That is not the case. Buildings are very important. I know that the injection of building resources can make a tremendous difference to the morale of teachers and parents and can help along comprehensive reorganisation. At the same time, where the will and determination is there, the teaching profession, in co-operation with parents and with the authorities, can abolish selection and go genuinely comprehensive without the injection of massive new resources. I know that Avon is getting down to this task, and again we shall be anxious to co-operate in order to get the right answer.

Education is a partnership. There is a special relationship which is good for the education service between the Department and local authorities. But the real responsibility rests with the local authorities. Perhaps I might illustrate that by pointing out that, whereas the quota of teachers allocated to Avon for 1974–75 was 7,375, in January the authority was employing 252 teachers fewer than the quota, which amounted to 3.4 per cent. The quota for the educational year 1975–76 is 7,623, and that figure has not been questioned by the Avon authority.

It is for the local authority to determine the number of teachers who will be employed. I know that the authority is under pressure from teachers' associations and parents. I welcome pressure, and I welcome consultation and cooperation. The rate support grant which is fixed by the Government includes an element for the payment of these teachers, but the final decision as to the disposal of the rate support grant is made by the local authority.

We look with interest at the controversy that is taking place in Avon about the disposal of educational resources. I agree with my hon. Friend that the greatest asset to the British nation is our young people. Therefore, ratepayers, taxpayers and everybody else ought to recognise that a contribution in money terms towards a sound educational service which gives full opportunities to all our children is not only a great investment but value for money.

If my hon. Friend has any particular points that he wishes to take up with me, I shall be only too pleased to hear his views and try to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock till Monday 7th April, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 17th March.