HC Deb 19 May 1975 vol 892 cc1014-81

3.38 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the substitution of the rule by circular for the rule of law, and the reckless disregard by the Secretary of State for Education and Science of the harmful effects of his policy on educational standards. It is with great pleasure that I open the debate on this motion. I thank the House for the opportunity, and I am grateful for the good fortune in the Ballot, which brought my name to the head of the list for this afternoon. I am pleased to see the Secretary of State in his place, together with his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, since I expect that much that is said today will turn on the views and actions of the right hon. Gentleman himself.

During the five years that I have had the privilege to be a Member of the House, I have never listened to a debate on education which the present Government party has not turned into a debate on selection. Whatever has been under discussion, hon. Members opposite have always talked about the evils or advantages and disadvantages—whatever they may be—of selection at 11. In that connection, I remind the House of the comments of hon. Members when I had the opportunity to move the Second Reading of my Education (Parents' Charter) Bill on 25th April. That had virtually nothing to do with selection at 11, but we were none the less interested to hear many speeches dealing with that very subject.

In the motion I include a condemnation of the Secretary of State's actions which I believe, as do many others, are proving harmful to educational standards. First, there is growing concern on both sides of the House about educational standards. I do not propose to belabour the point or give many figures. This has been done many times in the past. I wish only to draw attention to the problems of literacy and academic ability.

We were all pleased that the Bullock Report was not as damnatory as many of us feared. At least that report was not complacent.

I wish to quote from a study entitled "Educational Priorities" published by the Department of Education on reading ability in Liverpool, Birmingham, Deptford and the West Riding. Thousands of children leave inner city primaries at 11 unable to read even a simple sentence. I wish also to quote from the Teacher magazine, an impeccable publication, which on 17th May last year said that ILEA, after a survey, had found that Over half the sample of 16-year old day-release had reading levels below the average of 10-year-olds. That cannot give one cause for complacency. It must be a cause for concern.

Let me turn to the question of truancy. Again, many figures are given on that subject. A good comprehensive school in South London estimates that it has about 18 per cent. absenteeism, and its truancy figure is estimated at perhaps half the figure of absenteeism. Parents do not always co-operate and, therefore, it is well-nigh impossible to get an exact truancy figure. Nevertheless, there is no cause for complacency, but cause only for concern.

On the subject of violence and indiscipline, I wish to draw attention to an exercise undertaken by the National Association of Schoolmasters. That again shows no cause for complacency and again is a matter for concern.

I believe, as do many others, that part of the problem lies in the inherent dilemma which exists, especially in the all-through 11–18 comprehensive schools, partciularly in urban areas and deprived areas. We are coming to the conclusion that if such schools are large enough to provide for adequate sixth form studies, they are too large to be able to control the students in terms of discipline. They are certainly too large for the pupil to identify himself with the school. If, on the other hand, they are small enough to control in terms of discipline and identification they do not have an adequate sixth form to cover all the options which a child in a comprehensive school should be able to enjoy in respect of his studies. This dilemma has come to the forefront in the last five years. It is increasingly becoming recognised, and must be taken on board by the Secretary of State.

I should like to give some examples relating to schools in the South London area. The first school to which I refer is my local grammar school, Battersea Grammar School. The present plans are completely to abolish the grammar school and move it lock, stock and barrel to a new site and to merge it on that site with another school. Therefore, it will be a school on at least two sites—possibly three, since no doubt the rump will remain for a while in the present Battersea Grammar School building.

The Battersea Grammar School has a roll of 600 pupils, 150 in the sixth form all undertaking three or more A-levels. Those pupils average 18 or 19 options. In the same area is a comprehensive school with a sixth form entry, but with a total roll of about 1,000. That school is perhaps slightly larger than it should be. It has 60 pupils in the sixth form; 22 pupils are taking A-levels, and only six pupils are taking two or more A-levels. Those pupils are offered eight options. Last year there were no options in the sixth form in languages, physics, chemistry or biology. Therefore, on the one hand we have a school with 600 pupils, 150 of whom are in the sixth form, and on the other hand a school of 1,000 pupils, only six of whom are going for two or more A-levels.

It may be said that that school is unrepresentative. Therefore, let me cite another large comprehensive school—a good one with a roll of 2,000, 40 in the first form of the sixth form, some of whom are taking two or more A-levels, but there are only 13 options. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, there is no doubt that if the Battersea Grammar School merges with the comprehensive there must be a falling off in academic ability for the pupils in the merged school. There will not be as many pupils undertaking academic studies at the same level.

It may be said that academic ability or teaching at that level is not important. I do not propose to go into that argument this afternoon, but I only wish to venture my opinion that I believe academic ability is important.

Labour Members may take the view that the result which I have outlined in my earlier remarks is due to the fact that the comprehensive schools in that area are creamed off by the three grammar schools in the catchment area concerned. Let me try to deal with that argument.

Let us consider what will occur if it is sought to close the three grammar schools, each with three form entries. That would result in 270 A-stream pupils having to go to comprehensive schools in the area covered by the three closed grammar schools. There are 25 comprehensive schools in the area, at which the average is an eight form entry at each school. The closure of the grammar schools would mean that there would be fewer than two additional A-stream pupils in each of the first-year forms of those 25 comprehensive schools, if the numbers were averaged out.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

That is an absurd argument. Why pick on the 270 A-stream pupils? Surely all the other pupils in the three grammar schools have passed the selective examination or the 11-plus, which some of us do not think suitable. Those pupils will also have higher academic standards. Why does the hon. Gentleman pick on the 270 pupils for comment?

Mr. Shelton

If the three grammar schools close, there will be initially a redistribution which is much larger. The situation will not settle down for some time. Then there will be an intake of only 270 additional pupils. Within three or four years there would be a further 270 to 300 pupils going into the comprehensive schools—and they are pupils who would have gone into the grammar schools had they not been closed. The moment those grammar schools are closed, there will be a bulge which will disappear within a space of some years.

It is no argument to say that because not all children can enjoy academic ability, then none should. I am sure that Labour Members would not subscribe to any argument based on envy.

As I have said in the House before, I do not believe that selection at 11-plus can be defended educationally. As Mr. Stuart Maclure said in an interesting article in The Times Educational Supplement recently, in the long run we might wish to move towards a middle school system. With the limited information at my disposal, I believe that this is the way our system should move. Nevertheless, we do not know that for certain. In five or ten years we might be criticis- ing that system in the same way as I am today criticising the large all-through comprehensive system.

That is why we on this side have said repeatedly, and I am saying again, that we need an independent inquiry—not in any atmosphere of criticism but to seek information so that we know which way to go with our educational development. That is why until we know whether the middle school, the sixth-form college, selection at 14 or mixed ability teaching is right—we do not know, and I do not believe that the Secretary of State knows more than most of us—we should keep good schools of whatever sort. Let us discover the problems in the maintained sector and see which way we need to move. Meanwhile, for heaven's sake let us keep good schools until we know the right way to go.

One feels almost immoral defending selection, but when I have finished I hope that the Under-Secretary will agree with me in what I have to say about the Secretary of State's statement that he will end all selection by 1980, or whatever the date was—perhaps it should have been 1984. I defy Labour Members to deny the urgent and essential need to select at the earliest possible age educationally subnormal children, for instance, or handicapped children, those who are partially sighted or hard of hearing.

Would we not agree that the earlier that such disabilities are discovered—the earlier that those children are selected and move into special tuition—the better it is for them? I would defy any hon. Member to disagree with that.

Sir John Hall (Wycombe)

Would my hon. Friend not agree that it is also essential to identify and select at an early age the brilliant child who is not catered for under the present system?

Mr. Shelton

If my hon. Friend will have patience, he will find that that is what I am about to say.

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

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we get delegation after delegation of people representing the handicapped who say that for too long they have been segregated and isolated and that they should be integrated into the normal system so far as possible so that they can fit in more easily in adult life?

Mr. Shelton

The hon. Gentleman might remember that in a speech a few weeks ago when I was trying to persuade him to accept my Parents' Charter I said that many handicapped children should be educated in the main stream and that the parents' opinion should hold sway. But some educationally subnormal children need special tuition—dyslectic children, for example. Perhaps the grey area should be moved one way or another, but I do not believe that he would disagree with the principle.

Athletically endowed children are very much singled out for praise and honour in school, and in later life, when they triumph on the football field, for great monetary rewards as well. They are heroes. The academic child is not a hero at school, and perhaps never has been. The only question for hon. Members to consider is why the academically brilliant child should be the only one not singled out for special attention.

Among the arguments against selection, I believe, are that it depends on assessment and, therefore, causes anxiety, that failure to pass the 11-plus gives a sense of inferiority, that the presence of the clever child in the school inspires the less clever, and—perhaps the key argument—that non-selection promotes social unity or, the reverse, that selection is divisive. These have always seemed to me arguments of some weight against selection.

The creation of anxiety should be avoided, but if one says that there should not be, to use a pejorative phrase, sheep and goats, is it not better to distinguish early a pupil's abilities in order to give him special help if he needs it? One of my local comprehensive schools has the last year started remedial classes in reading and writing. I applaud it for that. There are many schools which do not have remedial classes yet because they have not identified those who need that special help. As for the argument that the presence of the clever child inspires the less clever, might it not be possible that his presence would depress the less clever?

There is a confusion of thought among those who adduce the argument of social equality against selection. The neighbourhood comprehensive school which draws from a small catchment area is, in some areas of London that we all know too well, a vast secondary modern school. In other cases, when the school is sited in a middle-class area, it is a vast grammar school. The result of a neighbourhood comprehensive with a narrow catchment area is selection by the purse, which I deplore. Some house agents in London show the catchment areas of local schools. A house within the catchment area costs £200 or £300 more than an identical house the other side of the magic line. If that is not selection—not by ability but by ability of the parents to pay—I do not know what selection is.

I have no credentials to speak of the early Socialists, but I understand that they always wanted the child to make his way by merit. They wanted to ensure that if he were good he would have the opportunity to move out of his locality into a grammar school some distance away, perhaps, because it had a large catchment area.

I have said that I do not defend selection at 11-plus, but these questions have not yet been answered. Until they are answered, it is fundamentally damaging to our education system to bulldoze through schemes of compulsory comprehensive education, destroying good schools like Battersea Grammar School. These questions are being raised increasingly. A groundswell of anxiety is apparent throughout the country, to which Ministers seem entirely deaf. Except when the Secretary of State ventures into the sphere of education, he is a moderate man, but then he might well be his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry in a mantle of moderation, which he tears aside as he advances on the schools in his path. He has not answered these questions and it is not within his power to answer them until some kind of independent inquiry has taken place.

I would merely call his attention to the fact that in the State system in America there is selection not only in San Francisco but in New York. I can give the Secretary of State chapter and verse for this if he wishes. We are told that Sweden is the Socialist paradise. By the age of 13 and by the end of the sixth grade all those who are going on to Gymnasium, which also means university entrants, are already selected. In Russia there are not only specialist and boarding schools for those who are mathematically gifted, but there is the system, which is common throughout Russia, whereby all children are judged equal in their first year at school but promotion from class to class is only on merit. At any given time, therefore, there can be up to 30 per cent. of a class of students repeating, and a percentage of children never complete the course at all. I am not advocating that method, but I am saying that even the most Socialist or Communist countries do not disregard the laws of human nature, as the Secretary of State seems to be trying to do. Before we take these irrevocable steps, at least we should try to find out what we are doing and what the result will be.

Therefore, it is against this background of anxiety and concern by the whole spectrum of educationists, teachers, many parents and I hope many hon. Members that the Secretary of State is issuing his circulars and writing his letters in an attempt to browbeat local authorities into changing their views in accordance with his. I remember a cartoon of a boss talking to a secretary and saying to her "I do not want you to agree with me. I want you to think like I do." This seems to be the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman. I am glad to see that he is shaking his head.

First, what he is attempting to do is against the wishes of the involved parents. The meetings we have seen, the lobbies we have had and the letters that the Under-Secretary has received would show that at least all those parents involved in this change are passionately opposed to the Secretary of State's plans.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

Is the hon. Member implying, by his use of the novel phrase "involved parents", that some parents are more equal than others when we take decisions about schools in this House?

Mr. Shelton

I am saying that some parents are more involved than others. Some parents have children who are affected and therefore they are involved. Some parents have children who are not affected and therefore, perhaps, they are not involved. I am using the word "involved" in its usual dictionary sense and not in its political sense.

Secondly, as far as we can gather, teachers are also opposed to the plans of the Secretary of State. A poll published in The Times Educational Supplement on 4th October last year showed that the majority of teachers were in favour of retaining grammar schools.

The Minister is doing this without an independent inquiry, and without—at least yet—coming to this House for legislation, which he has admitted he will need if these local authorities hold out against his wishes. He is using—as I shall hope to show—resolutions which were framed for a completely different purpose, to achieve his ends so far as direct grant schools are concerned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) will be able to explain—should he catch your eye, Mr. Speaker—perhaps, with more learning than I have, the Secretary of State is doing this at a cost. This weekend the right hon. Gentleman, when referring to the forthcoming cuts in the education service, is quoted as saying: it is a very painful choice, painful for me and painful for local councillors. He might well have added that it will be painful for parents, teachers and, perhaps more important, children. Let us accept that it will be painful for him and for local councillors.

I do not know whether it is unparliamentary to use the word "threat", but the threats of the right hon. Gentleman fall into three categories. The first category is that he has said that he will not give any money for school buildings if the councils do not fall in with his designs. That is the first threat which is contained in his infamous Circular No. 4/74 and which has been backed in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). I have received the Secretary of State's reply this morning, which I read with great interest.

His second threat is to use regulations under Section 100 of the 1944 Act to end direct-grant schools.

His third threat is of proposed legislation. He is quoted in the article published in the Labour Counsellor as saying: I have a bill already in draft form. That is another thunderbolt up his sleeve. I imagine that it is probably the same Bill as that which fell in 1970, so he has probably not had to do much work on it.

I understand that the Secretary of State has castigated at least seven councils—perhaps many more—as rebel councils for not falling in with his wishes. I should like to refer him to an interesting letter in The Times Educational Supplement which said that phrases such as this were the last resort of the demagogue thwarted in the unconstitutional use of power. They are not rebel councils. They are councils operating and acting entirely within the law of this land. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to change that law, his remedy is here in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, to adumbrate that such councils are in some way behaving improperly is, with respect, itself improper.

The first point is that he would withhold money for building purposes. In the letter of reply which he sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, he said: School building programmes, as such, are administrative instruments without legal significance. The right hon. Gentleman says that they are instruments of administration with no legal significance. What is the result, if such an instrument, without legal significance, has a legal result—a result which affects the legality of the position? If money were refused for essential new buildings, it might prevent local education authorities from carrying out their statutory duty under Section 8 of the 1944 Act. I shall not weary the House with that Section, but it lays on local authorities a duty in general … to afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction". If an education authority were not granted the money for educational business, which therefore would prohibit it from carrying out its duties under that Act, that authority would be in breach of the law as a result of the use of an administrative instrument. In the letter the right hon. Gentleman said that this could be tested in the courts. We all know of the limitless funds that the Government have when they choose to go to court. What about the parents when they choose to go to court? The dice are loaded against parents in a case like this, for financial reasons. As a corollary it may well happen that if the local education authority were in breach of its statutory duty, on complaint the Secretary of State could use his default powers under the 1944 Act, declare the LEA in default and give directions. Perhaps he could do this in the same way as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. Having in one way or other harried business to such an extent that they near failure and then come to him, he nationalises them. If the right hon. Gentleman—and hypothetically it is possible—denied this building money for schools and they became in fault in that they were unable to fulfil statutory duties, they might well then be in default and he would be able to give them directions. This is something which may have to be tested in court. We do not know.

I want to comment on the position of the voluntary aided schools and the menacing Circular 4/74, which contained these cordial words: In the case of voluntary aided schools the governors cannot expect to continue to receive the substantial financial aid which their schools enjoy"— unless they fall in with his wishes. That may be so, but is it legal to do this? Perhaps the Minister will tell us. My understanding is that the voluntary aided schools receive two forms of remuneration, one from the LEA and the other from the Secretary of State, to cover building and external repairs. In both cases my understanding is that there is a statutory duty so to do, and this statutory duty cannot be abrogated by a decision of the Secretary of State without coming to the proper place—the Floor of the House—to ask for powers so to do. Of course, that denies the different problems of the articles of association, the trust deeds and the articles governing the conduct of governors of all these voluntary aided schools.

The second menace uttered by the right hon. Gentleman against direct-grant schools he is rapidly putting into practice. He is proposing to abolish them by resolution. I refer him to Section 100 of the 1944 Act, which says that The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision for the payment by him ‖ and so on. I do not deny that in the stricter interpretation of the law, he is enabled to use these regulations in any way he wishes. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that those who drafted the 1944 Act intended the regulations to be used for the furtherance and continuance of those schools and not for their fundamental change and destruction. Should anyone doubt that, I can only refer him to the fact that these schools have been in existence for 30 years and it has never occurred to a previous Secretary of State to use the regulations in such a way. Therefore, I question the view that these regulations can indeed be used in the way that the right hon. Gentleman is intending to use them.

There are several points from this great letter which have caused grave concern and alarm among the staff of the schools and much of the public. Indeed, some of the teachers' unions have been concerned too. For instance, no assurances are given that the staff of the direct-grant schools will be retained should they go into the maintained system. I understand that it has been mentioned that talks will be held. Do the staff categorically have guarantees of employment? Is a guarantee given that headmasters will continue to be employed at the same level at which they are being employed now? These points have not been answered.

Secondly, it has been said that the capitation grant will continue for all those students presently at the school and at the school until September of next year. However, these schools will be at liberty to increase their fees. If the capitation grant is not increased, the parents will have to make up the difference presumably. Can an assurance be given that no additional cost will fall on the parents of pupils at those direct-grant schools which come into the maintained sector? Nothing yet has covered that point.

Thirdly, in the letter about courses the following phrase is used: Everything possible should be done that pupils already in the school will continue the same type of course. I do not believe that the phrase "everything possible" is good enough. We should have a categoric assurance that pupils will not have their courses changed in mid-term or mid-year, or in the middle of their time at the schools. An assurance should be given that they can complete the course of study set out for them until they leave the school. This must be guaranteed.

I very much trust that on this point the right hon. Gentleman will give us the assurance today that he will come to the House for an affirmative resolution for these regulations and will not allow something of such fundamental importance to be passed merely by negative resolution. I hope that he will at least give the House an option to debate them openly on an affirmative resolution.

Finally, with the background of uncertainty, this authoritarian arbitrary action by the right hon. Gentleman is taking place at a time of national crisis and stringency. It is taking place at a time when the Secretary of State is saying that teachers will be unemployed and that the milk cuts will not be restored—not only for reasons of economy; it has been decided that it is unnecessary to restore the milk cuts for reasons of health. That will be interesting to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. No doubt Labour Members will have forgotten entirely the comments they made when the milk cuts were made and their pledges to restore them. I am sure their comments and pledges have passed completely from their minds. Perhaps it is unfair of me to remind them.

However, here we have this uncertain background in the education world and an economic crisis, and the right hon. Gentleman is driving through, against most of the wishes of those involved, his doctrinaire schemes, which will cost the State money—money which could well be spent on employing more teachers, perhaps.

In the letter from which I have quoted, for the first time we see an admission that indeed the abolition of direct-grant schools may cost something. The beautiful phrase used, which I am sure was drafted with great care, is The Government's decision will result in some savings and some additional expenditure. The exact balance cannot be predicted but it is not thought that there will be a substantial net addition. A "substantial increase", if one is speaking of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, may be to the tune of £ 3,000 million or £ 4,000 million. On the other hand, it may be to the tune of a few hundred pounds. I hope that we shall learn what is meant by "a substantial addition". I cannot believe that the words I have just quoted could have been written unless a calculation had been made. The House should learn what that calculation is.

I should like to point out merely that the fees received by direct-grant schools are about £ 11 million a year. If they all move over to the State system, presumably that would be an immediate cost of £11 million a year. Then there is the capital expenditure, which could be about £70 million. Therefore, one must ask how much is "substantial"£5 million, £10 million £20 million or £50 million?—in the light of the cuts in the education service which are predicted by the right hon. Gentleman in the article to which I have referred. Might it be better not to cut the services and not to abolish, for instance, the direct-grant schools?

The Daily Telegraph—which I do not suppose hon. Members opposite regard as their favourite newspaper—had an interesting leader on 9th May 1975. May I remind hon. Gentlemen that a good many hundreds of thousands of people in this country read that newspaper? The leader was entitled "Our Own Huns", and it rather savagely attacked the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science for suggesting that universities should sell their treasures to meet their additional costs. I understand from later correspondence that this was made in jest. It amused me, because at the time his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responsible for the arts was saying that private individuals, because of wealth tax, would be forced to sell their treasures to the universities, so one saw a certain contradiction in voices at that time.

The leading article went on to say of the right hon. Gentleman that "nothing worse can come." Then it went on to ask the question, nevertheless after him what rough beast, its hour come round at last, will slouch towards the Education Ministry to replace him". Purely by chance—I am sure with no malevolence aforethought—all the newspapers next day were suggesting that the Secretary of State for Industry would shortly be moved to the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I very much hope that that will not happen To sum up, in my view—and, I believe, that of many people—the right hon. Gentleman has a bad case on educational grounds, he has a very doubtful case on legal grounds, and he has a bankrupt case on moral grounds.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

This debate has two hours 40 minutes to run, and 12 right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I do not intend to compete with the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) either in the length of his speech or, indeed, in going over the arguments for and against selection in the way that he did, for I believe that the argument about the 11-plus, the argument whether it is right or wrong to select children at the age of 11, was substantially won in most parts of this country some time ago.

I want to speak mostly about the direct-grant schools, but before doing so I should like to comment on the sheer effrontery of the motion: That this House deplores the substitution of the rule by circular for the rule of law ‖ How a representative of a party which issed Circular 10/70, which purported to offer local authorities freedom of choice, but which operated totally capricious criteria, which no Education Minister, including the hon. Gentleman opposite, was ever able to explain to anybody throughout the whole of his period in office passes my comprehension.

During the years when the Conservative Party was in power I had the privilege of being out of the House of Commons, and in the course of my duties I used, among other things, to attend Press conferences given by Education Ministers of the Conservative Party, so I can vouch for its total inability either to say or even know what were its criteria for secondary education on which it operated Circular 10/70.

I should like to devote my speech to the direct-grant schools, since they are mentioned in the motion, and it is important to remind the House of some of the background. This argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you will know, is one of extreme antiquity. It is not as though my right hon. Friend's recent decision to end the direct-grant schools is a sudden decision on this problem.

The direct-grant schools were invented by accident by the "Geddes axe" in 1921, when Lord Geddes thought he could save a bit of money. This whole matter of direct-grant schools was debated very fully in the House when the 1944 Education Act was in Committee. I can do no better than quote from the Official Report of the debate on the Education Bill in Committee, when Mr. Silkin—the late Lord Silkin moved the amendment which was designed to put direct-grant schools in exactly the same position as all other secondary schools. He had strong grounds for doing so, because the Fleming Committee, which had been appointed by Lord Butler, had just reported that this should be so and that direct-grant schools should be prohibited in future from charging fees. This was in 1944, over 30 years ago. Mr. Silkin, as he then was, quoted from Lord Butler's own White Paper of 1944, which had said that: A system under which fees are charged in one type of post-primary school and prohibited in the other offends against the canon that the nature of a child's education should be determined by his capacity and promise and not by the financial circumstances of his parent."—[Official Report, 28th March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1273.] That was not said by me. It was said by Lord Butler in 1943. If we cannot make any better progress than this, I do not know what we have been doing for the last 30 years in Parliament.

It might be worth mentioning that subsequent to that there was a revolt against the coalition Government, led by such revolutionaries as the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). It did not quite succeed and the direct grants remained, but they remained against the advice of an expert committee, the Fleming Committee, and against the Government White Paper of the day, so let us not have any talk about sudden decisions to get rid of the direct-grant schools.

While we are on the subject of antiquities, it is worth mentioning that most direct-grant schools were founded by very pious men specifically for poor children. That was the only reason for their foundation. One of them, very near my constituency, Alleyn's School, was founded by Edward Alleyn, who made a packet of money out of the Elizabethan entertainment industry, had great doubts whether he would go to heaven, and felt that by leaving his money for almshouses for the elderly and education for the poor he might somehow avoid too long a stay in purgatory before he went to heaven. Very rapidly that school became a school for the children of the rich, and one of the by-products has been to keep poor old Edward Alleyn in purgatory all this time. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science can take credit for allowing him out and letting him go to heaven at last. I think he should be very pleased with that.

I think it is worth mentioning this, because many of the direct-grant schools are owned by Roman Catholics and they have taken their foundation articles seriously. Very many Roman Catholic grammar schools—

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

They take the doctrine of purgatory seriously as well.

Mr. Price

That may be something to do with it. In many Roman Catholic direct-grant schools no fees have been charged almost since the 1944 Education Act. They have taken their responsibilities to the community seriously, so that in my strictures against direct-grant schools I do not include the Roman Catholic ones, but I do include those schools which were founded for the poor and are now substantially schools for the middle class.

I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend has decided to act upon direct-grant schools at last, because I think that one of the most important effects will be to bring together all the young people of the community in the same school in a way that has not taken place in the past. Conditions in our urban areas are such that we shall not solve them if young people who inevitably will hold positions of great responsibility receive their education in institutions quite separate from people for whom they will take decisions and with whom they will have to live. If for no other reason, the incentive that the Government's action on direct-grant schools will give to the leaders of our communities to co-operate with their local State system and not to try to opt out of it, will do a great deal of good.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Is it not the case that if we force out of the maintained sector into the private sector schools of proven academic worth certain parents will chase and follow them and, therefore, their involvement and interest in the maintained schools will diminish and leading local people will take less interest in the State sector?

Mr. Price

That is a problem. I say this against the background of a growing determination within the Labour Party not only to deal with the direct grant schools but to come to an agreement about the future of the independent sector.

Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)

Surprise, surprise …

Mr. Price

Again, that is not my policy. If the hon. Gentleman reads the debates on the Education Act 1944 he will see that hon. Members on both sides were greatly concerned that, because the major report of the Fleming Committee came out after the Act, the public schools would be left out. Hon. Members on both sides expressed concern that the public schools as well as the direct-grant schools should play their full part in the national system of education that was being planned in 1944. Therefore, I have Lord Butler on my side—or I did then. I do not know whether I do now.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is naturally getting a great deal of protest from parents who have children at the direct-grant schools, but I should like him to take heed of the pressure from the other direction. I should like him to reconsider the circular which he sent out. There are far too many loopholes in it to allow direct-grant schools to exist for several years without having to take any definitive action.

I understand that by the circular the direct-grant schools are asked to send a letter of intent from the governing body pledging a willingness to take part at some unspecified date in some unspecified way in the maintained sector. For many hon. Members on this side of the House that may not be good enough. The worst possible end to this problem would be that some direct-grant schools would take my right hon. Friend's word seriously and try to integrate with the maintained sector. Others would opt out, which they have the right to do, and become independent. However, others would use his circular simply as a means of procrastination to maintain their present status into the foreseeable future.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give us some reassurance on that matter. In education circles there is a consensus that the direct-grant system has come to the end of its useful life. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has read in The Times Educational Supplement not the article about the 14-plus—which contains some interesting ideas, since the difference between the ages of 14 and 16 is not all that great—but the original article about direct-grant schools. The Times Educational Supplement is not a Left-wing publication. Indeed, its editor, whom I very much respect, is sometimes thought to be the friend and mentor of the Conservative Central Office. I have no idea whether that is true, but some people tell me that it is so.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Not me.

Mr. Price

The Times Educational Supplement made a plea for the ending of the direct-grant system cleanly, quickly and once and for all so that people know where they are.

I beg my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not to go slow on this problem. I know the tradition of the civil servants in the Department, because I have been in it. They like to ease and inch people along. That is to a great extent how we went comprehensive in the 1960s. However, I humbly suggest that that is not the correct technique on this occasion. I hope that my right hon. Friend will make it clear fairly soon to Parliament and to the direct-grant schools that on a certain date the substantive direct grant will finish except for those children already in the schools.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

The speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) was one which we should have expected to hear from a former education correspondent of the New Statesman. It was entertaining, rather mystifying and wholly unconvincing. The case against direct-grant schools needs to be deployed better than the hon. Gentleman deployed it if anyone on this side of the House is to go into the Government Lobby when the legislation threatened by the Secretary of State is introduced.

Like the hon. Member, I shall devote most of my remarks to the question of the direct-grant schools. I declare my interest, because for many years I have been a governor of a direct-grant school and one of my children attends a direct-grant school. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West raises his eyebrows. He might like to know that I know of three ex-Labour Cabinet Ministers whose daughters were successfully educated at the same school, and I believe that they have praised its academic standards.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is present, although apparently he will not reply to the debate. I noted the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) about the right hon. Gentleman. I propose to attack him, so I am glad that he is here. On a personal basis, I like the right hon. Gentleman. He is a courteous, friendly person. However, he is portrayed in the Press as a moderate Cabinet Minister. He is not. He is an immoderate Cabinet Minister on education matters. In his way, he is every bit as bad as the fanatical Secretary of State for Industry in trying to push forward Socialist-type legislation. If the right hon. Gentleman remains in his job, we shall see the destruction of a very good education system which has been built up since the passing of the Education Act 1944, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Perry Barr—

Mr. Christopher Price

It used to be Perry Barr. It is Lewisham, West now.

Mr. Smith

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He moves round constituencies so much that one tends to forget.

On other subjects the Secretary of State has had a reputation for moderation, as I knew when I was at the Department of Employment. He had such a reputation when he was in government in another capacity. He should understand that the rights of minorities must be considered.

The Secretary of State could perhaps say that more people were in favour of abolishing the 11-plus than were against abolishing it. There might be more people in favour of abolishing direct-grant schools. But there is a substantial body of informed opinion—not just the prejudiced opinion of people who have children at direct-grant schools---which thinks that it would be very damaging to the education system if direct-grant schools were abolished. This system of education draws pupils from all ranges and levels of society. Often the reason parents of quite modest means support these schools is the immense range that they cover. Comprehensive schools usually draw their pupils from one particular district, and mostly from the same social range. An imbalance could be created by parents moving around deliberately to areas which have very good comprehensive schools and avoiding those which will be the slums of tomorrow.

The threat to withdraw the grant from the 174 direct-giant schools in England and Wales and the 26 grant-aided schools in Scotland means that those of us who are very much concerned with the direct-grant system as governors, staff, parents or simply supporters are faced with three choices. We must see these schools absorbed into the maintained system, or we must see them go fully independent, which will be extremely costly for many of the parents who will wish to support them. The third possibility is that they will be closed and lost for ever, in which case an outstanding element in our educational history will have gone for good.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who, I am sure, within a very short time will be the Secretary of State for Education, will have the courage to restore grants to the direct-grant schools where they have to go independent. I hope very much that he or one of his colleagues who fills I hat particular office in the next Conservative administration will encourage the introduction of more direct-grant schools so that the system will be expanded rather than curtailed as is presently threatened.

The thing which impresses me about our debates on fundamental issues such as this is that we see Socialism always seeking to bolster the failures while never quite getting round to doing other than penalising the successful. As has been said for the last 25 or 30 years, education needs a levelling-up of all standards with a dichotomy across the board giving a variety of different schools to cater for different types of child. We do not want selection by the purse or a system which enables people merely to buy education. We want to be able to mix children of different social ranges and backgrounds and to be able to encourage children, whatever their background, who show great ability. We want them to be able to get on far more successfully than they would in the comprehensive system.

There are many major unanswered questions about the comprehensive system. Those questions need to be answered before we plunge finally and totally into it. Obviously, Labour Members can get cheap and superficial cheers at public meetings by saying that they want the 11-plus system abolished. I am also against the 11-plus system. Many years ago I was a member of the Middlesex County Council education committee. We were abolishing that system while maintaining grammar schools. We were introducing a system of selection, over a period which was far fairer than selection at 11-plus with examinations taken on one or two days by which a child's whole future was decided.

The case for the retention of some form of selection is academically formidable. The whole process of life is one of selection. Whichever system we have, be it comprehensive or anything else, there will still have to be selection. There will still be people who are bright and intelligent and others who are dull and will need special help. There will still need to be various gradings simply so that the brighter children are not held back while the slower children catch up. Those who are too slow must be given the necessary attention if they are not to sink.

Our direct-grant schools are among our finest and they have produced many of those who today are the leaders of the professions, the arts and industry. Many of those people have come on in the period since the end of the last war and have reached positions which were previously occupied by people of great privilege and power. These products of the direct-grant system often originate from humble homes.

I know that the Secretary of State thinks deeply on political subjects. He must, therefore, consider whether he is being slightly misled by some of his colleagues in this mindless pursuit of egalitarianism in getting rid of direct-grant and grammar schools. He is entitled to his Socialist principles and ideals, but he must see the merit in having variety and the opportunity to encourage and improve our education system without making it a blanket, uniform and dull system which in the long run will level down rather than raise up.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, I should have thought that the Government at present had enough problems without having to start meddling in a system which is doing well. Surely this is not the time for them to start changing the education system in a way which will cost money and cause great resentment and confusion. First things must come first. The Government must get the economic situation right and bring inflation under control. When that has been achieved they can look rather more coolly and calculatingly at the education system.

The Secretary of State need not think that he will have an easy ride in abolishing the direct-grant system. Many parents and supporters of the system—not necessarily Tories—bitterly resent this approach and believe it to be partisan and unfair. They feel that it has not been properly thought through. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, even at this stage, will think again.

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

I welcome this debate, particularly since I was not able to discuss with the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) the question of the parents' charter, which was debated at his instigation only about a fortnight ago.

The motion involves us in three basic propositions in this aspect of education. First, we must consider the general question of direct-grant schools and voluntary aided schools. Secondly, we have to decide whether the powers of the Secretary of State do or should extend to those seeking to approach education on a selective basis. Thirdly, we face the issue of whether the concept of comprehensive education, which has the support of the vast majority of the British people, can co-exist with the selective system, even though selection applies only to about 3 per cent. of the population.

I would have had much greater respect for Opposition arguments if I had thought that Conservative Members were defending a crucially systematic element in our educational provision. However, quite clearly they are seeking to defend a historical accident. We are not talking about a systematic group of schools offering a countrywide opportunity for children to enjoy such benefits as are supposed to exist in selective education. These schools cover only limited areas. If Conservative Members are suggesting that the direct-grant system extends the concept of choice to all pupils and parents, perhaps they will explain why that choice is available in Lancashire and Yorkshire and, to a certain extent, in London, but not to vast areas of the country elsewhere which do not have direct-grant schools. Since the Opposition have never advocated that the direct-grant system should be extended to other parts of the country—

Dr. Hampson

The hon. Member is wrong.

Mr. Davies

I have seen no precise proposals from the Conservatives, certainly not when they were last in office, for increasing the number of direct-grant schools. I imagine that the public repercussions of such an exercise would be such as to warn them off. We are facing a historical accident which reflects a geographically limited facility for British parents.

The second proposition was that the powers of the Minister should not extend to the concept of selection in secondary education. In my view the Education Act 1944 did precisely that. It concentrated the powers of the Department of Education upon the basis on which children should be selected for secondary education. This was a subject on which a substantial number of reports had been prepared. The Act said, in effect, that on the basis of those reports conclusions could be reached, and that the British education pattern should reflect this distilled wisdom.

Over two or more decades we have recognised the limitations of many of the propositions behind the 1944 Act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham. West (Mr. Price) indicated, there were many reservations about the sharpness of the divisions created in 1944. The country at large has substantially accepted that the arguments for selection are not justified by the educational benefits that it purports to bring.

The problem about the circular which my right hon. Friend has circulated to local authorities is not that it is too strong but that it is not strong enough. It could lead to far too great an area of discretion for the schools. We must be perfectly blunt about the situation. Conservative Members are quite aware of it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West that the logic of the argument and the implications for the independent sector may as well be recognised in the debate.

The case which is really being argued by the Conservatives for the maintenance of the direct-grant schools—if their support for direct-grant schools is successful, in so far as some of those schools decide that they will not be fully integrated into the State system—is that the decisions about the future of the schools will be taken not on educational criteria but on purely economic criteria, and that a number of schools will leave the State system of education. The issue will have been decided not upon the educational merits but purely upon the financial position of individual schools. That case should not be defended by the Conservatives on the basis that it is good for the development of education.

Comprehensive requirements have profound implications for the nature of selection. The form of entry which selects the few inevitably deprives the rest. The direct-grant schools were largely the product of a somewhat haphazard historical accident 30 years ago. If we look at the development of the direct-grant schools over the last 30 years we find that they do not have a record of success but a record of extreme limitation, bordering at times on being worthy of criticism.

First, Conservative Members will no doubt defend the direct-grant schools on the basis of parental choice. Parental choice is inevitably limited in all those areas where direct-grant schools do not exist. That limitation is not only geographical but social. Geographically, it is clear that there is little opportunity for an individual in Wales, for instance, to extend his ability to select for his child the so-called advantages of direct-grant school education because in the whole of Wales there are only four such schools.

Secondly, the Conservatives will no doubt argue that the direct-grant schools offer a broad social mix, and, in particular, that they enable substantial numbers of children of ordinary working-class parents to escape from their locality and enjoy the benefits of socialising and being educated with a wider social mix. But in the direct-grant schools one does not find a social mix which reflects in any way the broad composition of British society. One finds—as the Labour Party has always recognised and argued, and as has been widely recognised throughout the country—that with social selection in the direct-grant schools two and a half times as many pupils are children of the middle class as their group is represented in society as a whole, and there are two and a half times as few working-class children as are represented in the community as a whole.

The schools have been somewhat coy about revealing this. I regret that we are involved today in developing yet another issue which should have been settled 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Those of us involved in the matter before the Donnison Report have great difficulty in obtaining from direct-grant schools the foundation of their argument that they represented a broad social mix. Once the Donnison Report had identified the sociology of the direct-grant schools the facts were clearly revealed.

I imagine that the third argument to be presented by the Conservatives will develop around the issue of standards. I have no doubt that if the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) has the good fortune to catch the eye of the Chair he will wax as eloquent as ever on this subject.

I contend that the standards of education which our children seek to achieve and are able to achieve are much more related to what is expected of them than to their own abilities. The most crucial determinant of educational success has little to do with the standards of teaching or the level of the school. It has a good deal more to do with the social background of the children and the school's expectations of their possible achievements.

Given the framework within which the direct-grant schools have been placed for the last three decades, what one sees is a record not of conspicuous academic success but of mediocre achievement. Thirty-five per cent. of the children who enter direct-grant schools, on the rigorous academic selective criteria that Conservative Members vaunt so much, and on the basis of the social selection which is clearly reflected in their broad social composition, fail to get any A-levels. More than 60 per cent. fail to go on to higher education. The achievements of the schools which purport to be the defenders of academic standards are, despite their most favourable circumstances, considerably limited.

The direct-grant schools also say that their distance from the Department of Education and Science and from local authorities gives them a degree of independence and freedom which we should welcome in British education. That is an argument which is put forward in defence of public schools. It is a dubious argument in that context, and in the context of the direct-grant schools it holds no water. Whereas the independence of the public school sector can at least provide the fig leaf of respectability when we are talking about the Summer-hills of this world, and the possibilities of initiative and innovation in certain areas of education, in the framework of our direct-grant schools we have an all-too-predictable, narrow, conservative, predominantly philistine development of our education system.

I came across an example last night when I took a few minutes off from laboriously preparing my notes, which hon. Members will realise are the product of great research, to watch the "Omnibus" programme on BBC television. There I say David Hockney, whom I do not rate as my favourite artist, but he has a rare talent, and was educated in a prime direct-grant school. He made it clear that the important thing if one wanted to develop an artistic talent, which is his particular contribution to our society, was to get into the lower forms of the school, where it received priority. Had he remained on the treadmill of academic achievement, which the top ranges of the school, and its whole process, sought, such talent would have been stultified.

That is a condemnation of those who would argue that direct-grant schools provide a broad and important element in our education development. I do not decry the development of academic standards. But if one wants to develop education standards one should be concerned not to concentrate the most qualified teachers, and possibly even the most able, in those most prestigious schools. Rather, our best education talents should perhaps be directed towards ensuring that children in less advantaged schools or from less advantaged social backgrounds, derive encouragement.

Even with their highly prestigious and academically-orientated education, and, with that background, the ability to select staff, the direct-grant schools have not been successful judged by the narrow criteria of academic standards by which they would wish to be judged.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman was in error in saying that two thirds of those at direct-grant schools do not go on to higher education. In fact, 32 per cent. go on to universities and another 32 per cent. go on to higher education of various kinds. That is a unique academic record.

Mr. Davies

I accept that I should have said that one third of the pupils at direct-grant schools do not go on to higher education, and I withdraw the figure I gave. However, the point still holds that we are talking about schools with an extraordinary concentration of talent, because of the selective processes, and certainly about schools whose pupils come from socially advantaged homes. In so far as these schools develop an academic advantage, it is much more a reflection of the students they select at 11 than of the process of reaching educational attainment inside the school.

We should recognise that we need to develop the talents of all our children, and that we certainly need to end the social divide which this most divisive form of education helps to perpetuate. In the context of our social, economic and political problems, we need better understanding, more co-operations and a greater development of talents. As long as we persist in arbitrarily selecting certain groups of children for a separate form of education, and not even educating those particularly efficiently, we have a basis for the continuation of the divisions in society.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on an important step in the right direction. My worry is that the step is rather more hesitant than it should be.

5.5 p.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Unlike the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies), I should like to deal not so much with the "call attention" part of the motion as with its terms: That this House deplores the substitution of the rule by circular for the rule of law". I should like to point out to the Opposition that during their term in office the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, now Leader of the Opposition, issued 43 circulars. I should like to know whether the idea behind the motion—moved by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton), who seems to have left the Chamber, probably for very good reasons—is that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make political capital or that he genuinely disapproved of the action of his own party's Secretary of State. He might think about this in days to come.

I see no reason for anyone to deny a democratically elected majority, however small, the right to make decisions. Labour Members, if not the more realistic Members on the Opposition benches, will agree that when it comes to talking about the making of law, the Conservative Opposition during the period in office of the present Government have been a pretty puny Opposition. When it has come to voting, it has been extraordinary how weak has been their strength. Many times when we turned up with virtually our full numbers the Conservatives were 30 or 40 short. It seems to me that circulars are a perfectly realistic way to implement what was, after all, in the Labour Party manifesto.

My point is that there is so much in education which is having harmful effects and which could be debated. My party—perhaps all parties—has always felt that the priorities of education are very simple. They deal first with children; secondly, with teachers; and, thirdly, with buildings in which teachers can impart knowledge to children.

If there is one thing that should have been debated, it is the single growth industry in the Government's present education set-up. I refer to education administrators, who seem to be becoming more and more numerous.

I should not like to be the only man on the Opposition benches who does not shower the Secretary of State for Education and Science with compliments. I notice that he, too, has gone, probably because of a surfeit of flattery.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman is never likely to have to make an exit for that reason.

Mr. Freud

I believe that that was the intervention which the hon. Gentleman promised earlier, or perhaps it was just a halfway entertainment.

There is always something wrong with a nation's education system. If we did not accept that, we should not be realists. My contention is that the thing which is particularly wrong is that there are more and more administrators.

In the last few days the Secretary of State, like a latter-day Beeching with a shining axe, has warned colleges of education that there will be a cut-back in the number of teachers. He said that there will be no need for these teachers. I wish he would remember that for every extra teacher we train, the appalling pupil-teacher ratio is made marginally better. If there is to be a cut, let it be in the number of administrators. The natural redundancy and wastage of administrators should be allowed to run their course without bringing in new and bright young educational administrators at the other end of the sausage machine.

There has been a fair amount of talk about direct-grant schools and grammar schools. We have noted that other political parties in the House at various times have deplored selection at 11-plus. The Hon. Member for Streatham in moving the motion—he has still not returned, but if I stay on my feet long enough I may be honoured again by his presence—

Dr. Hampson

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) was called upstairs to peruse his speech in readiness for the hon. Member to read tomorrow.

Mr. Freud

I am grateful for that information. If he changes it significantly we shall probably all agree with it.

The hon. Member for Streatham said that no time was too early for selection. He was in favour of selection at the age of five if necessary, so that a partially sighted child, a child with impaired hearing or a physically handicapped child can be taken out of the school by selection. Has he not heard of remedial teachers? A child of that age does not have to be abandoned to a remedial school. The longer he can stay with normal children, albeit receiving extra tuition and help, the better will be the chances of that child in the long run.

I have said before that our education system is not ideal. Of course it is not ideal, but it is the system which the Conservative Opposition wish to prolong. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John Stevas) said that the direct-grant school system should be enlarged. He has every right to make a promise that it will be, and if the Conservative Opposition come to power he has every right to implement that promise, whether by decree or by law.

But what is so special about the 12 per cent. who are able to go to a grammar school? Is it not unfair to the 3 per cent. who come after the 12 per cent. or the 10 per cent. after that? Is it worth giving 12 per cent. of the children a better education, thereby depriving 88 per cent. of the chance of contact and social intercourse with those who are lucky enough to be endowed with better brains? That is the question we have to ask ourselves. In a country which has our present financial limitations, I see no reason for abandoning 88 per cent. of the children for the sake of the 12 per cent. That is perhaps the most important consideration. We have always deplored the limitation of opportunity, and that is what selection does.

In my constituency there seems to be the worst of all possible alternatives. In March, Whittlesey and Chatteris there is no I 1-plus selection, but there is creaming off at 13. That means that all children have co-educational primary education until the age of 11. They then go to a secondary school which, for example, in Wisbech, means either a boys' school or a girls' school. At the age of 13 the best 15 per cent. are creamed off to go to another type of school, and in Wisbech that is the only way to coeducation. This does great harm, not to the children who are creamed off but to the ones who stay behind, who set themselves from their earliest years against certain children with whom they can compare their ability. The damage that this does to the community and to the football and cricket teams is enormous. The House should realise that to condemn a child to being a failure at any age is always wrong. No child is a failure. It is we adults who have failed an awful lot of children.

5.16 p.m.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

Each time the Labour Government bring forward legislation to carry out manifesto promises I am surprised when Opposition Members make the sort of speeches that we have heard this afternoon. No one would deny that we made clear in the manifesto that we should bring to an end the grants given to direct-grant schools and that we believed in comprehensive secondary education.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in an earlier debate, it would be anomalous, and, indeed, I believe ludicrous, for a party that believes in comprehensive secondary education to continue the direct-grant system. My hon. Friends have shown that the direct-grant and grammar school systems depend not so much on selection but on rejection based on many fortuitous factors. I once lived in a little village called Woodstock not far from Oxford. For a child who lived in Oxford the chance of getting to a grammar school was 10 or 20 times greater than it was for a child living in a small village in the county.

Several hon. Members have said that direct-grant schools have a wider social mix than have comprehensive schools, that free places give the children of poorer parents a chance to go to direct-grant schools and that the free place system benefits working-class children. My hon Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) did some research in Bristol covering the years 1968 to 1972, and the statistics produced from that research bear out a comment that has been made. From 1968 to 1972 433 non-Catholic free places were awarded. Of those places 119 went to children in independent and non-maintained schools, schools where parents, who have the money to do so, pay for their children to be educated. Roughly 30 per cent. went to those schools. That left 314 free places to be awarded to the children from primary schools.

As there are 91 non-Catholic primary schools in Bristol, it could be assumed that they would get roughly three places per school. That could be assumed if, as has been suggested, there is the wider social mix and the wonderful opportunities for working-class children to get to direct-grant schools. In fact, 161 out of the 314 places that is approximately one half—went to only seven schools in Bristol --namely, Colstons, Elmlea, Henleaze, Stoke Bishop, Westbury-on-Trym. Westbury Park and Waycroft. The other 84 schools shared the remaining 153 places.

I have a map which shows the concentration of the numbers going from certain areas in the city to the direct-grant schools in Bristol. It is clear that the majority come from the wealthy areas. They come from the areas where the prices of houses are well beyond what can be afforded by ordinary working-class families. Indeed, there are great stretches of areas right across the map where there were no free places allocated to the schools concerned. They are the working-class areas of Bristol both in my own constituency and in the constituencies of other hon. Members who represent Bristol.

Dr. Hampson

Are not the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues forgetting one important point—namely, if this policy goes through these schools, either as private schools or as neighbourhood schools, will be even more socially selective than they are now? 'They may not be widespread now in terms of social intake, but the intake would be much narrower if this policy were pursued.

Mr. Thomas

My right hon. Friend, in setting out the Labour Party's policy, made it clear that the direct-grant schools will have a choice of either continuing in their selective and rejective kind of way, which I have mentioned, or of joining the State system. I hope that many of them will consider putting their resources into the State system, but I do not believe that anyone in the Labour Party can support a situation in which a considerable amount of public money is given to a small number of children. I am now speaking about Bristol. The children that receive the money come from certain backgrounds, and, clearly, these schools are not creating a wider social mix to meet one of the main arguments presented in their favour.

A good deal has been said about xper cent. getting O-levels and A-levels. I was rejected by the education system in my teens and fortuitously found myself at the centre of the establishment in terms of education—namely, Oxford University. Of course, examples of this kind are often used as instances of someone succeeding. It is said "They can succeed if they have the ability." The notion is used that, irrespective of background, youngsters can get to a university.

I think of the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who were equally rejected by the system. If they had been given the same "fortuitous" opportunity they, too, would have arrived there just as I did. Having spent many years in education I have grave doubts about our so-called standards. Statistics are produced about O-levels and A-levels. I think that a lot of O-levels and A-levels are simply memory tests that do not tell us anything about the abilities of the persons concerned. They tell us nothing about their intellects. At some stage I would welcome a much wider debate on our examination techniques in view of the great emphasis that seems to be placed on whether someone has one O-level or three A-levels.

I entirely agree with the point made about the standards of comprehensive schools. In Britain today, and certainly in Bristol, there are many schools that were built before the end of the last century. We need to devote far more of our economic resources to education and to comprehensive education. It is my judgment that whilst decision makers in our society can afford to send their children to schools outside the State system we shall not get the kind of State system that we really need.

5.27 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

We are indebted once again for this debate on education to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton).

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Where is he?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No doubt preparing for the next time he wins the Ballot. My hon. Friend has a remarkable power for winning Ballots and lotteries. It is a prodigious gift. He was successful in the Ballot for Private Members, and as a result we were able to discuss the parents' charter until it was talked out by Labour Members. Today we have had the opportunity to discuss not only Government education policy but, even more important, its relationship to the rule of law.

My hon. Friend opened his remarks by adumbrating the succession to the Department of Education and Science. He gave us a quotation that came to us from Yeats via the unlikely source of the leader column of the Daily Telegraph. It referred to some rough beast lurching or slouching towards the Department to replace the Secretary of State. At first I took that as some kind of cryptic tribute to myself, but then it became clear that it was a reference to the present tenure of office of the Secretary of State and a successor who has been adumbrated in the popular Press.

I hope that is not the case. We should regret to see that kind of change at the Department. We are anxious not because of the retention of the present occupant but because of a possible successor in the shape of the Secretary of State for Industry, who, like Banquo's ghost, has come in and out of our discussions. What we fear is that we shall have not only Macbeth but Lady Macbeth as well. That would be a considerable combination with which to deal.

It is a sad reflection on the present state of our political commentary that the Department of Education and Science should be considered a suitable refuse dump for the disposal of inconvenient Ministers. Education is a subject of paramount importance, and the effect of education policies will be felt long after our economic debates, which now preoccupy us, have been relegated to the more unreadable portions of Hansard. That, indeed, is saying something.

My hon. Friend's motion reaches the heart of the matter when it deplores the substitution of the rule of law by the rule of circular. The educational argument was very fully dealt with by my hon. Friend in proposing the motion, and I do not intend to go into that.

I shall concentrate my intervention on the extremely important constitutional point which characterises all Government policy, but education policy under the present Secretary of State in particular. It cannot be said often enough that Circular 4/74, which seeks to impose a system of comprehensive schools without regard for educational considerations or local conditions or parental wishes, has no force of law whatsoever. It is an expression of the wish of the Secretary of State. It is no more and it is no less than that. However, that would never be guessed from the language and tone of the circular.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) censured the previous Government for the number of circulars they issued. The essence of the point is not the number of circulars that are issued but the tone and language of the circulars, their content and what they ask.

It could never be guessed from the language and tone of this circular that it was not backed by the full force of the law. The circular does not request information. It requires information. It gives no indication that local education authorities and the managers of voluntary schools are perfectly entitled to withhold that information should they so wish.

This is the root objection to the circular. It seeks to override the rights of local authorities and voluntary aided schools. It is flawed in its very basis of principle, because it ignores the basis of our education system, which is that there is not one power in the education system but there are two. It is not, in the strict meaning of the word, a monarchy. It is a diarchy. The Secretary of State is not in the rôle of some kind of crowned despot who can impose his will on the whole system as it occurs to him. He must work by persuasion to achieve a harmonious co-operation between the two. It is persuasion which he must use and not dictatorship.

Mr. Christopher Price

Has the hon. Gentleman read Section 1 of the Education Act 1944, which requires the Secretary of State to control and direct a national policy through local education authorities? It uses the words under his control and direction".

Mr. St. John-Stevas

If I had not read Section 1 of the Education Act I would be unfitted even for a Shadow appointment. So I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point. I have read not only Section 1 but all the other sections of the Act. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in taking one section of the Education Act and isolating it from the rest of the Act. The Act has to be read as a whole.

It is true that Section 1 states that the responsibility of the Secretary of State is to achieve a national policy in education, but that general duty is subject to all the other sections of the Act which lay down the position of the other constituents of the education service.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman of my reading, I remind him of Section 8 of the Act, which I am sure he has read so I need not ask him on that point, which lays it down as a primary duty of the local education authorities to see that there are a sufficient number of schools available. I remind him, too, of Section 36 of the Act, which provides that parents are under a duty to see that children of compulsory school age are educated in accordance with their age, their abilities, and their aptitude. I remind the hon. Gentleman further of Section 76 of the Act, which lays it down as a general principle that children are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents as far as that is compatible with efficiency and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure". So I am indeed grateful to the hon. Member for his help in enabling me to show that I have read not only Section I of the Education Act but the other sections of the Act as well.

Nothing is clearer from that recital than that the duties rest with the parents first and the organisation with the local education authority, and that both are Previous in importance and in dignity and in the manner in which they are treated by the Act to the Secretary of State. It is very important to get that basis of principle clear.

I hope that, with the aid of the hon. Gentleman, I have established that the law guarantees the autonomy and the rights of local educational authorities. So the basis of resistance of those local education authorities which are now resisting the requests of the Secretary of State is quite different from the basis of the Clay Cross councillors. The Clay Cross councillors were acting against the law, whereas the councillors of Kingston-upon-Thames, Buckinghamshire and elsewhere are basing themselves upon their rights as guaranteed by statute passed by the House.

Next, the Secretary of State, having in this circular advanced the facsimile of a legal case, shows that he recognises the weakness of his own position when he falls back on threats that if the local education authorities fail to comply with these instructions they will be deprived of their building programme. Different forms of words have been used. The circular contains this wording: "No projects"—that is, at non-comprehensive schools— will be authorised. The only projects to be authorised will be those which are necessary to enable the school to become comprehensive. On 12th January of this year at the Labour Local Government Conference in Manchester the Under-Secretary of State said this: No new building will be authorised which would be incompatible with the development of genuine comprehensive education". Those are two quite different concepts. It is very important that local education authorities which have been threatened in this manner should know exactly what it is that they are threatened with. Is Government policy represented by the language of the circular saying that it is only projects which are necessary for the development of comprehensive education which will be allowed, or is the gloss put upon it by the Under-Secretary of "compatible" now to be Government policy? I hope that the Under-Secretary will give us his guidance on that matter.

Secondly on the question of the building programme, it is wrong in principle to use a technical device of the building programme, which was designed to ensure good economic management, to coerce local authorities. That is a misuse of a power. It was a device which was used and developed for something quite different. Now it is being turned to a wholly political use by the present Secretary of State, and that should cease.

There are also clear limits to this threat which are imposed by the law itself. As my hon. Friend said in moving the motion, it cannot operate against the duties which are laid down under Section 8 to see that sufficient schools are available. What the Secretary of State is attempting to do is to call in aid a political policy to cancel out a legal duty. I do not believe that the courts, were they asked to pass judgment upon this manoeuvre, would allow the Secretary of State to succeed.

There is also the point that it is the duty of the local education authority to ensure that the premises of every school maintained by the authority conform to the standards prescribed by the Secretary of State for schools of the description to which the school belongs. Those standards, the Secretary of State knows, are prescribed by the Standards for School Premises Regulations 1959. Statutory Instrument 1959 No. 890.

The cumulative effect of these provisions—the sections I have quoted and the statutory instrument—is that if any financial sanctions were sought to be applied by the Secretary of State to prevent the adequate maintenance of existing school buildings or their necessary repair or alteration, I think there is a very good chance that the courts would overrule the Secretary of State in the exercise of that power.

It is extremely important that local authorities should be aware of their rights under the Eduction Acts. Of course, I agree that it is different where a new school or a significant enlargement of a school is to be considered, but the vast majority of local education authorities at this point are not thinking in those terms. They are thinking in terms of alterations to their schools and in terms of improvements to bring their schools up to certain required standards. They are perfectly safe in proceeding along those lines, and the Secretary of State does not have the power to deprive them of the aid which they need under the building programme.

There is a third major point. Quite apart from the legal limitations which are placed on the action of the Secretary of State and his Department, there is the practical limitation that there is no secondary school improvement programme in existence. If the Secretary of State casts his mind back to the building programme which he authorised for 1975–76 of £140 million, he will know that the major part of that sum of money has to be devoted to basic needs. There is a pittance of about £ 4 million for improvement projects which are to apply not only to primary and secondary schools but also to colleges of further education, and so on. Therefore, the amount of money involved here is indeed tiny.

What the Secretary of State will achieve by this policy is simply this. He will bring the whole idea of the comprehensive school into disrepute. If local authorities allow themselves to be coerced into putting forward proposals for which no money at all is being provided, all they will get is a series of botched-up schemes, schools with split sites, schemes which are comprehensive in name but in nothing else. That will be the practical outcome of the Secretary of State's policy.

After all, we have seen the most extraordinary changes in the approach to comprehensive education. We used to be told that it was essential to have large schools with 2,000 pupils or so, in order to be genuinely comprehensive. Now we are told by the ILEA that a three-form entry school is sufficient to enable it to go comprehensive. We have Dr. Elizabeth Halsall, who has worked all her life for comprehensive education, changing her ground and saying that we do not need schools with between 1,500 and 2,000 pupils but that it is possible to have a school with 600 pupils. When educational opinion is changing so rapidly, I think it is wise to go slowly and not impose this pattern on schools everywhere as though the merits had been proven beyond all discussion.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

The hon. Gentleman has got his history wrong. It has never been the view of those who believe in comprehensive schools that a comprehensive school must be very large. The old London County Council was obliged to make them large because the then Conservative Government would not let the LCC do it at all unless it did it that way. This was based on a wrong idea about the size of the sixth form. The idea that informed educational opinion at any time took the view that a comprehensive school must be large is belied by all the facts.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sorry to differ from the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with authority as a former Minister of Education. No doubt—I do not challenge it for a moment—he has given us the views which he has always held, but he is flattering educationists in general by attributing his own perspicacity to them.

I remember when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, when Secretary of State for Education and Science, challenged this concept of the large comprehensive school the wave of denigration and abuse which broke around her head from many educationists who said that this was a campaign against the comprehensive school as such. Whatever the ultimate outcome of this exchange, it serves its purpose in that it shows that there is a degree of uncertainty in this sphere which is a very unsafe base on which the Secretary of State seeks to construct this edifice of dogmatism.

What I have said about the local authorities and this is the fourth point I wish to make—applies with even greater force to the position of the voluntary aided schools, which are the third element in this partnership which has made up our education system. In Circular 4/74 we have this extraordinary passage: In the case of voluntary aided schools the governors cannot expect to continue to receive the substantial financial aid which their schools enjoy through being maintained by the local education authority, if they are not prepared to co-operate with that authority in settling the general educational character of the school and its place in a local compre hensive system. I ask the Under-Secretary to say under what authority such a statement is issued by the Department of Education. It ignores entirely the rights of the religious settlement of the schools built into the Education Act 1944. The Education Act 1944 gives the right to voluntary aided schools to be maintained. The salaries of the teachers are to be paid by the local education authority. The internal repairs are to be done by it. That is a statutory right. There is no question of their dependence on a system of reorganisation or co-operating with the Secretary of State in his wishes.

Under Section 102 of the Education Act 85 per cent. of the external repairs are to be paid for from moneys supplied by the Secretary of State. He is under a statutory duty to supply that money to voluntary aided schools, however they may organise themselves internally. The right to propose schemes of reorganisation rests not with the Secretary of State nor with the local education authority. It rests with the governors of the voluntary aided school itself, and two thirds of those are appointed from the foundation or the religious body that is supporting them.

There is the further point that if the Secretary of State wishes to confirm a cease-to-maintain order for one of these voluntary aided schools, applied for by a local education authority, it is necessary for him to be satisfied that alternative places are available for the children displaced from that school. He admitted that himself.

Mr. Armstrong

I am not arguing about that.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman says that he is not arguing about it. But the whole circular is a repudiation of what I have been saying. It is a repudiation of legal rights which are enshrined in statute.

Mr. Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Then what is it? If it is not a statement of the law, it is a piece of bluff and bluster, and it should be exposed for what it is. I think that I have disposed of that argument satisfactorily, and I can pass on to two further matters. [Interruption.] These are important matters. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) has descended from some place—or ascended, who knows?—but he was not here when our deliberations began. Nevertheless, death-bed conversion is better than nothing, and I trust that, having missed the beginning of the debate, the hon. Gentleman will remain till the end.

My fifth point is that the same ignoring of the law and cavalier disregard for Parliament is reflected in the nine-page letter demanding statements of intention from direct-grant school governors. This letter has been sent out by the Department of Education in furtherance of a policy approved by the Secretary of State but never submitted to this House in the form of regulations. There is no basis in law for the governors of these schools to be required to make any reply to the Department of Education until those regulations have been laid before Parliament and the House has had an opportunity to confirm or reject them.

Under Section 100 of the 1944 Act, a section which envisages the continuance of the direct-grant schools, it is at least possible—my hon. Friend touched on this point—that those regulations would be ultra vires the Act and would be so held by the courts. Therefore, the Secretary of State is on dangerous ground in issuing that letter demanding statements from the governors of these schools without the slightest authority from the House.

Now, my sixth and last point. Bad communications corrupt good manners, and I hope that local education authorities which are opposed to selective schools will not follow the bad example of the Secretary of State and his deputy in this respect, because they will ignore the law at their peril, and local authorities are as much bound by the law as is the Secretary of State. For example, whether they are opposed to selection or not, they are obliged by law to provide a genuine selection procedure, and if they do not wish to do that if they wish to get rid of their grammar schools by that sort of method—they must apply under a Section 13 notice procedure which has to be confirmed by the Secretary of State.

Local authorities have no right to rig zoning arrangements so as to suffocate a school. That would be a policy contrary to the law. Nor have they the right to discriminate in the matter of capitation grants for sixth forms or in other respects against schools of which they disapprove.

Freedom and the rule of law are our most precious possessions. It is a tragic irony that the Secretary of State, who in other spheres has done much to assert and defend those values, should in the only sphere for which he has direct responsibility have challenged them. In that one sphere he is following the same destructive course as he condemns in others. If he wishes to change the law, let him come to Parliament and seek legislative support. The last Labour Government in 1970 took that course. They lost the Bill not because of the election but because of the defection of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price). The Bill was lost in Committee because of the defection of Government supporters. That was when the Government had a majority of 100. Now, with their majority even less, if it exists at all now, the chance of getting such a Bill through the House is lower than it was then.

The Secretary of State, however distinguished he may be, has no right to take the name of the House in vain and to use the prestige and law-making powers of the House to pursue a policy based on nothing better than his own personal predilections and his party's manifesto. We ought all to be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham because, as a result of this debate, it will be far more difficult to follow that course in future than it has been in the immediate past.

5.55 p.m.

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

The motion moved by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) dealt with three issues, and I shall reply to them as briefly as I can. First, we were accused as a Government, of wanting to alter the fundamental status and nature of grammar and direct-grant schools. We plead guilty to that charge.

Second, it was said that we were doing it without legislative sanction. The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has just repeated the general assertions which he has been making throughout the country about the Secretary of State's actions. The hon. Gentleman has made those assertions so frequently that his passion on the subject this afternoon led me to think that he actually believes them. In fact, my right hon. Friend has acted within the law throughout, as I shall prove.

Third, it is said that my right hon. Friend is showing a reckless disregard for the harmful effects of his policy on educational standards, and that, too, I shall answer.

The debate has shown the divergence of philosophy and approach of the two sides of the House to what we mean by education and what we expect the education service to achieve. I put it bluntly: we believe that there are positive advantages when all pupils—pupils of all attainments and social groupings—are educated together. This is taken for granted in our primary schools. It was recommended in a consultative document prepared by an independent committee as long ago as 1931, and we think that what is good practice in primary schools ought by now to be in operation in our secondary schools.

That belief and philosophy is the basis for our clearly stated policy, now being implemented, to abolish selection at the secondary stage and to introduce genuine comprehensive reorganisation in secondary education throughout the country. We have had the support of local education authorities of all political persuasions. We have the overwhelming support of all teacher organisations, and there is no doubt that education opinion supports the national policy outlined by my right hon. Friend.

It is time the Opposition were honest with the House and the country and stated clearly where they stood on the question of secondary education. When they give us their real view, we can have an honest debate. These are matters on which none of us can be dogmatic. We ought to be debating them, and we ought to be questioning what is happening in our education service.

At every election—indeed, from almost every platform—the Tories tell us that they are against 11-plus selection, but then they start a campaign to retain grammar schools throughout the country. They cannot have both. Tory local education authorities throughout the country are implementing comprehensive reorganisation while their parliamentary colleagues and representatives fight on the Floor of the House and on political platforms to retain selection and elitism. I repeat that Conservative Members cannot have both, and therefore they must be honest and make their choice. Comprehensive education and selective education are not parallel systems; they are alternatives. Any responsible politician must come clean with the electorate and say which is preferable.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) put the matter clearly in his "Black Paper No. 2"—I agree with him when he said: One cannot have grammar schools alongside comprehensive schools or the latter will be nothing but misnamed secondary modern schools. Yet we are told that they can coexist.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I still hold the view that it is impossible to have such schools in the same area. However, that does not mean that comprehensive and selective schools cannot exist side by side in different areas. Does not the Minister agree that life has moved on since "Black Paper No. 2" to "Black Paper No. 4", in that leading Socialist, Iris Murdock, has great doubts about the matter? If the Socialists want to lose other Socialists, good luck to them.

Mr. Armstrong

Indeed, we have moved on, and the "Black Papers" have got worse and more reactionary. At any rate the hon. Gentleman must sort out his own conscience and philosophy, and I think that he has made my point for me.

We believe that what is contained in the motion before the House would mean, in practical terms, the reallocation of scarce resources to a narrow, privileged sector. That is the only meaning of the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Streatham. They could be implemented only at the expense of other parts of the service such as educational priority areas schools, neighbourhood comprehensives, and so on. It would mean reduced opportunities for pupils who so often hit the headlines because of hostility to school as they see it and experience it today.

I come to the rule of law, which is an important issue. Under Section 1 of the 1944 Act the Secretary of State has a duty to secure the effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing varied and comprehensive educational service in every area. Circular 4/74 spelt out that policy in no uncertain terms. We have advocated that policy over a number of years and it was reiterated in our manifestos in February and October of last year. It is a national policy, which has been overwhelmingly supported and received the endorsement of the House on two occasions last year.

Despite the efforts of the hon. Member for Chelmsford throughout the country in advising local authorities to resist—he has every right to do so, and has made clear that the circular does not carry the weight of law, and we have never said it did—only seven authorities out of 97 have resisted our invitation to comply with national policy.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will the Minister also tell the House how many local education authorities have sent in conditional schemes—conditional, for example, on finance being made available or on a certain number of years having elapsed? Does he agree that if we are to have a fair assessment of the situation, we need information about those who are resisting indirectly as well as directly?

Mr. Armstrong

We in the Department accept what the authorities are saying, and I am trying to give a true account to the House. I repeat that seven authorities have already said that they want to retain selection. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are other authorities which have said that they do not wish to go fully comprehensive until more resources are available, but many of them are anxious to go ahead with comprehensive reorganisation.

We are discussing the situation with those seven authorities and are asking them to reconsider their policy. We hope that they will consult the Department and co-operate in a national policy which has the overwhelming support of the country. We have proceeded by consultation and persuasion, but we are determined to carry through this policy of educational advance in every area. We are preparing the necessary legislation and we shall certainly introduce it in the next Session of Parliament if any authority still insists on retaining selection, thus frustrating nationally agreed policy. I hope that that has cleared the matter in the minds of the Opposition.

I come to the assertions made by the hon. Member for Chelmsford about the bullying tactics and arm twisting in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is supposed to have indulged. We stated our policy in unequivocal terms. In the circular to which the hon. Gentleman referred we advised full local consultation with all interested bodies. We offered the good offices of the Inspectorate, with all its experience of good practice in the country, and, furthermore, we quite properly reminded authorities and governors of voluntary aided schools of their responsibilities before implementing the nationally agreed policy. We reminded them that building projects which were incompatible with progress towards genuine comprehensive reorganisation would not be approved. We spelt that out clearly to all interested bodies.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford asked me to deal with the rights and powers of voluntary schools, and then went on to answer his own query. He knows what the law is and he also knows about the rights of voluntary schools. He knows all about the agreement relating to 85 per cent. and all the rest of it. But he also knows that under Section 13 of the Act local education authorities can propose to cease to maintain any maintained school, whether county or voluntary. When such a proposal is approved by the Secretary of State, the local education authority's duty to maintain the school is at an end. No Secretary of State would approve a proposal—nor would any local education authority make a proposal—to close a school unless the educational interests of the children were properly safeguarded. Therefore, the assertions made by the hon. Gentleman and the heat which he engendered should not have been imported into our discussions. He knows full well that we are carrying out the law.

On the question of school building programmes, a great deal was made by the hon. Member for Streatham—who referred to a letter involving his hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison)—of administrative instruments without legal significance. They are also instruments of education policy and have been used as such by successive Secretaries of State, including my right hon. Friend's predecessor.

Let me give an example. Authorities have now been given an allocation for nursery education. Quite properly, they have made representations to my right hon. Friend for the amounts in respect of nursery education to be transferred to secondary reorganisation to enable resources to go into that work. Some have made a strong case. My right hon. Friend has resisted it because we regard pre-school education as one of the highest priorities in the educational service. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that my right hon. Friend is acting illegally? It does not appear so. This is in accord with our education policy. It involves the use of a complete allocation to implement that policy. It was done when the hon. Gentleman was in the Department and it will be done by successive Secretaries of State. There is nothing new in this. My right hon. Friend is acting in accordance with the power given him in Section 1 of the 1944 Act to guide, direct and persuade LEAs to accord with national policy.

Hon. Members have spoken about the use of Section 100 with regard to direct-grant schools.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Before he leaves the subject of the building programmes, will the Minister elucidate the distinction between the wording in the circular, that only projects which were "necessary" to enable schools to become comprehensive would be approved, and his own wording, that only those projects which were "compatible" would be approved? If it is a question of compatibility, the restrictions that he is endeavouring to impose on LEAs are much less stringent than those imposed in the wording of the circular.

Mr. Armstrong

May I deal with that in this way? No local education authority has inquired of the Department about the meaning of the circular or of my statement at the Manchester conference. We have made it clear, not only in the circular but in speeches and in replies to Parliamentary Questions, that when an authority submits a Section 13 proposal or any proposal for a building project which would perpetuate selection and impede progress towards comprehensive reorganisation, building resources will not be allocated.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is a third form of words.

Mr. Armstrong

No, this is all the same thing. This is clear in the minds of authorities.

I am told that Section 100, like some other provisions in the 1944 Act, is cast in the form of imposing a duty, but in fact it does no more than confer a power on the Secretary of State. I was impressed by the hon. Member for Chelmsford's knowledge of the Education Act, but that Act often seems to me a bit like Holy Writ—one can quote all kinds of things from it to prove what one wants to prove.

Even if Section 100 were mandatory it would not matter in the present context, because the duty would not be restricted to grants to grammar schools. When such grants stop, grant will be still be payable under the same provision of Section 100 to many other bodies, like the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal Ballet School, and the voluntary colleges of education, or further education, under the ordinary direct-grant schools regulations, which are not in issue and which will remain in force, and to the direct-grant nursery schools and one or two other institutions.

I come now to the allegations about legislative sanction. There is no question of the Government's attempting to put into effect their proposals about the direct-grant schools without such sanction. No primary legislation will be needed to accomplish the aim set out in the Secretary of State's statement of 11th March. The relevant statutory regulations will have to be changed, however. It is the intention of my right hon. Friend and of the Secretary of State for Wales to make appropriate regulations for this purpose under Section 100 of the Education Act 1944 and to lay them before Parliament as prescribed in Section 112. They will be subject to a negative resolution of either House.

Meanwhile, out of consideration for the interests of all concerned—pupils, parents, staff, governors and local education authorities—and at the express request of representatives of the schools, we have made available an advance indication of the gist of the proposed regulations so that schools may have as long as possible to consider their position and their intentions. Nowhere in the letters that we have sent out is there any command, demand or threat. We have simply set out the general intention, which we shall seek to accomplish in due course in the proper way by regulations laid before Parliament.

The hon. Member for Streatham properly raised the question of the rights of the staff, of the fees, and of the cost to the education service. The cost to the service depends on the number that go independent and on hundreds of decisions by parents and governors, and so on. All the evidence is that the cost either way will be marginal. As for staff and fees, perhaps the hon. Member would like to write to the Department. These are matters for negotiation which we have very much in mind. I certainly take on board the points that he has made.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

The Minister says that he intends to lay an order before the House. In the meantime, he has a draft order in circulation. Since the order will not be amendable once it is laid, will he ensure that Members of Parliament can see it, by putting a copy in the Library? We could then suggest to the Minister any amendments that we thought appropriate. It does not seem reasonable that we should not have a copy when outside bodies know what it contains.

Mr. Armstrong

It is not a draft order. The hon. Member for Chelmsford will tell the hon. Gentleman what we have written to the direct-grant schools. It was in response to a specific request from the representative bodies that we give them as much information as possible as soon as possible, so that they could make a considered response. It is not a draft order, but an indication of my right hon. Friend's policy.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely my hon. Friend is right. What he is saying to the Minister is that the House of Commons should be the first body to be informed of this policy, and not the last. Surely the correct constitutional procedure, if the hon. Gentleman wishes these schools to have notice of Government intentions, is to lay those regulations before the House as early as possible. They should have been laid before this letter went out. Are not the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State presuming that the decision of the House will be in favour of those regulations, whereas it may well be against them?

Mr. Armstrong

We have done nothing out of line with our powers under Section 100. We thought that we were helping those whom the hon. Gentleman has purported to represent today. The last time that he was at the Opposition Dispatch Box he was complaining because we were not telling the schools enough. Now, he is complaining because we have told them. However, I shall see that a copy of the letter is put in the Library, so that the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) can inform himself. Perhaps he will inform his hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford as well.

In particular, we have outlined new conditions of grant that it is proposed to introduce in respect of pupils admitted after the next educational year and we have indicated the steps which, when taken by the schools, my right hon. Friend will be prepared to regard as satisfying the new conditions. The regulations will be drafted as soon as possible. This must be done with proper care to reflect my right hon. Friend's intentions accurately. But it was not thought necessary or desirable to dot all the legal "i's" and cross all the "t's" before giving those concerned a firm basis on which to proceed with their discussions.

Let me emphasise, as was explained in the Department's letters, that under the proposed regulations it will not be strictly necessary for the schools to make their decisions until the end of this year. In their own interests, and for the sake of pupils, parents and staff, many schools will probably want to make their decisions before then. My right hon. Friend hopes that they will be able to do so before the end of this term. Some have already done so. Others may not be able to move on so swiftly, but there is no need to wait until the regulations are made. They have been told my right hon. Friend's intentions, so they have a basis on which to move towards a decision as soon as they feel able to do so.

This is not rule by circular but an act of consideration made at the request of the schools themselves. In the case of those direct-grant schools which seek to enter the maintained system—I am sure that there will be many—the crucial step will be a submission to my right hon. Friend of proposals to this effect under Section 13. A proposal may be made by the school, if the intention is that it should become a voluntary school, or by the LEA, if it is to become a county school. The final decision will be taken by my right hon. Friend in the normal way in accordance with the law and after careful consideration of the available evidence.

I now want to deal with the charge that my right hon. Friend is supposed to have a reckless disregard of standards. I reject that assertion out of hand. We are all concerned about standards—academic standards, the behaviour of children, relationships with others, tolerance, care, a proper sense of responsibility and how to live together in a modern society. If we judge by educational standards—I shall not give statistics and percentages—it is apparent from A-level and 0-level results that more and more children are succeeding. There is no doubt that a greater proportion are leaving school with more qualifications.

Of course, the demands of modern society are increasingly exact. We know that great progress is being made, but that does not mean that we are complacent. When we talk about standards, which children are we most concerned about? Most of us are concerned about the numeracy and the literacy of those who, in a sense, have been born to fail. These are the children written off far too early, rejected by the 11-plus procedure, rejected often earlier by rigid streaming in the schools, rejected by a system that sets out deliberately to separate, segregate and divide and rejected by a philosophy—about which we have heard a great deal this afternoon—that confers privilege on the gifted, rewards the strong and punishes the weak.

Because we want to raise the standards of all our children, we are determined to give those who hitherto have been excluded freedom of access to the educational resources available. They are the children about whom we are concerned. There is no evidence at all that the creaming off of high-fliers into exclusive schools helps even the high-fliers. There is abundant evidence that labelling children as unsuitable and inadequate, and then separating them into schools for the less academically inclined, is a sure recipe for resentment, boredom and under-achievement. When we expect a given response from children and offer them a restricted education at a school for rejects, we should not be surprised or bitter when they respond accordingly.

Far too many of our so-called comprehensive schools are, because of their coexistence with selective grammar schools, misnamed secondary modern schools, as the hon. Member for Brent, North has called them. Those schools are carrying far more than their share of social problems. No wonder that teachers' morale in those schools is difficult to sustain. Where there is coexistence, very often the so-called comprehensive schools have to take the problem children. That is why there are so many difficulties.

Because we want to give all our children access to real meaningful education, we are determined to press ahead with reorganisation which will achieve a service enabling children of all classes in the nation to attend the same schools. Therefore we reject out of hand the motion today.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton), both on his success in the Ballot and in his choice of subject. He has chosen a particularly important subject because we are debating nothing less than a fundamental human right—the right of parents to choose the type of education their child shall receive. It is a right enshrined in the universal Declaration of Human Rights and a right enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights.

We are talking about parents' very strong feelings on these matters, and all of us, as Members of Parliament, know from our postbags just how strongly parents feel about this subject. Conservative Members are concerned with parents' wishes. However, we are not alone in that. The Minister professes to take into account their wishes. Indeed, in Circular No. 4/74, of which we have heard so much this afternoon, he specifically says: Authorities will no doubt continue to have due regard to parents' wishes in respect of their children's education ‖ What is the point of parents expressing their wishes if they have no choice? The Minister wants all schools to be comprehensive. His idea of parental choice is rather like the choice offered to the purchasers of the early Ford car—"Any colour you like as long as it is black."

Although there is competition to get into some of the local authority schools there is certainly competition to enter virtually all the grammar and direct-grant schools both for the so-called free places and for the fee-paying places. Why is there such competition? In some cases it is that parents went to the schools themselves. In some cases it is simply that there is some sort of status attaching to the school. In some cases, perhaps, the parents like to demonstrate that they are in a position to pay the fees.

However, many parents of modest means go to a great deal of trouble to get their children into these schools. We all know examples of—perhaps both—parents working long hours in order to pay the fees. Why? It is because they consider that the standards of these direct-grant schools are higher than the standards appertaining in other schools—not simply the academic standards but the standards of discipline and behaviour and the standards in the various peripheral activities that take place in the schools.

There comes to mind one of those calendar mottoes which read: Education is what is left when you have forgotten everything you have ever learned. An over-simplification, perhaps; but there is a grain of truth in the implication that education is a training of the whole man or woman and not simply filling the mind with information.

It is this type of broad training for life that the direct-grant schools offer. If the State schools offered the same standards many more parents would opt for them, and then the direct-grant schools would, to use a phrase used elsewhere, "wither on the vine". But this is not the case.

The logical approach would be to raise the standards of the local authority schools. The Labour Party approach to this is to say that the answer is to have complete comprehensive education. Of course, there is a case for comprehensive schools. Some parents want their children to go to comprehensive schools. However, it is one thing to offer comprehensive education as one of the types of education available, thus broadening parental choice, but it is quite another to impose it throughout the country and destroy old-established institutions with fine reputations.

I know that Labour Members will protest that they have no intention of destroying direct-grant and grammar schools. However, if we radically alter the syllabus, the pupils and the style of school, we have created a new institution in an old building, and in the process have destroyed the old institution. If the new could match the old there would be something to be said for this policy. However, it is not so.

The demand for places in direct-grant schools continues to increase. My own borough has been implementing its policy of wholesale comprehensive education in the past few years. In the last two years the demand for places in one of the direct-grant schools in my constituency has doubled.

Therefore, the Government are now proposing to get rid of the direct-grant schools and have given them three alternatives. One is that they can go independent, which will mean that many of the children who now enjoy free places will no longer be able to do so at these schools. It will also mean, in the case of the school in my constituency, that the fees will be forced up by at least £ 150 a year. It means that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for direct-grant schools to maintain their present system of remission of fees for parents on limited incomes.

The second alternative is for the schools to close altogether, thus throwing a heavy burden on the local authorities, whose existing facilities are already inadequate.

The third alternative, which is what the Minister is seeking, is that the schools shall become fully maintained local authority schools. But at what cost? Has the Minister done any calculations about this? The school to which I refer would cost the local authority £ 2 million to buy. It would probably cost the local authority another £ 500,000 to convert and adapt in order to meet its requirements for a sixth-form all-ability-entry school, and in addition, it would cost at least £ 400,000 per year to run the school. That would be the cost to the local authority for one school—that is to say, the cost to ratepayers.

This would be the cost to ratepayers already groaning beneath a rate increase of 55 per cent. This is a policy from a Minister who, only a few hours ago, was saying on radio that local authority expenditure would have to be considerably cut.

The word "doctrinaire" is used quite often in this context rather freely. My dictionary defines "doctrinaire" as one who is an unpractical theoriser. It is an appropriate description for those who advocate this particular policy. This policy is impracticable, illiberal and, what is more, out of touch with the views and wishes of thousands of parents who genuinely care about their childrens' education. I urge those who support this policy not to be too proud or too stubborn to think again.

6.31 p.m.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

It is interesting to hear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may be a lawbreaker. It reminds me of something which I think Shakespeare wrote in "Antony and Cleopatra", about some titanic development which had occurred—possibly the death of Caesar—namely, It should have shook lions into civil streets. It is absolute nonsense. It is in keeping with the exotic language of the motion. When use is made of such language as reckless disregard by the Secretary of State for Education and Science of the harmful effects of his policy on educational stanlards one has to look a little more deeply to see what it is that is being aimed at and what is being concealed.

The reality is the old reality. There is nothing new about it. It is the intention of the Conservative Party to carry on with what it has always done—to defend wealth, privilege and place and to strive against the democratic advance of education.—[Interruption.] No matter what the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) says, these are the realities. We know it, and the people who are listening to us and those who read about them will know it. They, along with us, are making the drive towards more comprehensive education—such a drive that the people who oppose it are ploughing the ocean, and there is no real chance of turning it back. Therefore, I wish that the Opposition would try to make it better and help us to try to improve it in every way possible.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) spoke of the Bullock Report. I know something about that, having given evidence to the Bullock Committee as the chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Primary Schools in my union, the National Union of Teachers. Based on my experience as a teacher, having seen the advance of standards side by side with certain degenerations in our society, having taught in a primary school and a middle school and having heard my children reading almost daily, it was never my opinion that that report would be condemnatory. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman used the word "damnatory". When speaking about the Bullock Report he said that it was not a condemnatory or damnatory report "as some of us feared". I heard some of my hon. Friends say "hoped" as a suggestion for replacing the word "feared".

The reality is that that report has upheld what teachers have been saying—that standards and reading ability are going ahead, although with great difficulties facing us because there are great difficulties in the society in which we live We hear attacks by Conservative Members on reading standards, and constant reports about a colossal amount of truancy and absenteeism. We hear exotic language used about violence and indiscipline. Conservative Members know, as we know, that these things proceed from deep within society itself. They are things which are deplored and which we are trying to set right in the face of all the attacks launched on our education system. These are the realities. We would dearly like to prevent that minority doing the things that it does do and which it does not only in the classroom but at football matches and places outside where things go wrong.

Mr. William Shelton

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with the present standards of literacy and numeracy?

Mr. Flannery

It is a truism that we are never satisfied. I am never satisfied. Having spent my life in teaching, and knowing children as intimately as I do, I want our standards to be higher and better than they have ever been. They are better, and they are getting better and higher than they have ever been. These are the realities, which cannot be tucked away. No amount of accusation in trying to foster on to education the complications of society and the seeds of some wrongdoing which is not the product of the education system, which is trying to set those things right, will succeed.

Recently, I sat in the Chamber all day but did not manage to speak in the debate on what was laughingly called a "parents' charter". It was a rich parents' or middle-class parents' charter. It was a misnomer which should never have been applied. The Shadow Minister revealed his vast knowledge of the 1944 Act, but he knew and I knew that he had gone through that Act only a few weeks previously with a fine-toothed comb and therefore could mention Section 66 as being the small section he was using, along with the hon. Member for Streatham, in relation to the Bill which they introduced and which did not pass through Parliament. When we examined that Bill we found that it was totally wrong, as is the motion. This motion will not be approved.

Mr. William Shelton


Mr. Flannery

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. He made a speech much longer than mine will be.

The motion continues, in a pseudo-democratic manner, to use the antidemocratic methods that the Conservative Party has used continually to attack the splendid advances that we are making in education for our children and their parents. Some time ago, in my city of Sheffield, we were about to introduce complete comprehensivisation of the system. People said to us then "If you use that as your main platform in the municipal elections, you are doomed." We said, "We shall go ahead on a principle." In that year we got the biggest vote ever, because the vast majority of people wanted education with no 11-plus examination for their children. These facts have been driven home.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a famous by-election in the Conservative county of Surrey in which the vote was entirely on the issue of comprehensive education, and that the Labour Party, which had never won the seat previously, won it on that issue?

Mr. Flannery

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It proves conclusively, and will prove again, that the vast majority of people want comprehensive education because they know that the old system relegated 80 per cent. of our children to an inferior type of education—no matter how hard we teachers worked to make it as good as we could—and gave an elitist form of education in the direct-grant schools to the children of the rich and those privileged in society. The latter are the same kind of people who want favours from society all along the line—private beds in hospitals, private schools for their children, the best houses and the best of everything for themselves. Those are the people who struggle against the advances which are taking place in education despite their opposition—advances which will ultimately relegate all direct-grant schools to the dustbin or bring them into a better system in the maintained sector of education.

These are among the reasons why we are proud of the developments going on. As I have said here before, our primary schools are comprehensive, because all the children go into them except that section attending the private schools. Our primary schools are the most exciting schools in the world, with magnificent developments taking place. They are comprehensive schools. Children do not have to pass an examination in order to enter them.

The mentality of the "Black Paper" is the mentality which wants favouritism in the direct-grant schools. The same people want an examination in reading at 7-plus, when all teachers in the primary sector know that children are listened to daily, continually, and do not need that examination. In the primary schools we are now feeling free from the weight of examination and able to teach things about life, not just catering for examinations. The mentality of the "Black Paper" that wants more and more examinations is the mentality which wants favouritism in the schools.

The Conservative Party has engaged in every possible scheme, every possible device, every possible manoeuvre, it can think of to preserve and develop elitist education at the expense of the children and the parents who are 80 per cent. of the community, and it is something the community is not going to tolerate. It is something we have pushed completely away, and no matter how many times the Opposition put these backward arguments, they will be refuted, not merely by Government Members but by the parents in their majority who know that elitist education is totally wrong.

The upper middle-class enemies of comprehensive education—we should like to welcome them into the State system—will now see that we are not against them. We are with them if they will come in and help us to develop comprehensive education for the majority of our children. We want them to come in, but if they do not we shall have to do our best democratically to advance the whole cause.

Comprehensive education has its weaknesses, but it has nowhere as near as many weaknesses as elitism, and the grammar school and the direct-grant school. We are learning every day. We admit, for example, that some of the schools were too big. We are not totally committed on that aspect, by the way. As has been explained by my right hon. Friend, this exercise had to be gone through. Initially, it was imposed on us. That may be changed. It may be in process of being changed. Although genuine difficulties exist in comprehensive education, the system has massive strengths for the whole of our young people. All schools differ as human being do, but we are going on from strength to strength, with more democracy in the schools, with new and better methods and with better examination results at the top. We promise that we shall have better and better and more and more comprehensive education, and in the process not a single attempt will be made to break the law.

6.45 p.m.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

One has a slight feeling of déjà vu, not merely from following the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), which I have done several times, but also in relation to his arguments, which have been heard continuously since 1944 from Government Members. We never seem to progress at all in our education debates.

I should like to give the Minister an opportunity to answer a point which he did not answer earlier, arising from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). My hon. Friend stressed that the option that the Government were trying to establish for the schools was to drive them into the maintained sector. Is he going to repudiate the noble Lord the Minister of State, or will he explain the statement that it would be exceptional for these schools to become county schools, and that they would become voluntarily-aided or voluntarily-controlled schools? This might make some difference to the attitude of the schools. What is his position on voluntarily-aided schools?

Mr. Armstrong

The Government's position has been quite clearly outlined in the letter. It is for the schools themselves to decide whether to opt to be voluntarily-aided schools. Any application will be received sympathetically. We have written to the athorities, and it will be a subject for discussion. We have asked for a statement of intent.

Dr. Hampson

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I now come to the general argument that we have heard from Government Members. One cannot help thinking of the Labour Party as the Hilda Bakers of education. She was the comedienne who used to say "He knows, yer know." The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough shouts "We know, yer know." In other words, it is impossible for us on the Conservative side to say anything about education. The Labour Party says it knows what we stand for. We do not stand for half the things that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough attributes to us, and we, too, wish to see all the difficulties, the anomalies, the problems of the disadvantaged areas, and so on, in education sorted out and the position improved. There is common ground on that.

Mr. Flannery

I know that the hon. Gentleman believes in comprehensive education. I was addressing myself to his party in general because with honourable exceptions, its members do not believe in it. They are split on this. That is my point.

Dr. Hampson

If the hon. Gentleman had only listened over the years to what has been said, or read the Official Report, he would know that some figures were issued from the Department which showed the number of comprehensive schools which had come into being under Conservative Ministers—most of them. We believe in the principle. We have never stuck by the 11-plus as a rigid selection formula. We are asking for a diversified system. It is not a backward argument. It is the forward movement of the times. We have the editor of The Times Educational Supplement on our side, and Dr. Harry Judge, a distinguished comprehensive school headmaster, and Profesor Eggleston, who has some interesting research suggesting that able children may derive benefit from a special environment in which to develop their potential. At least Professor Eggleston indicates that research shows great uncertainty. We are arguing and always have argued for a flexible and diversified system. People like the editor of The Times Educational Supplement have now joined us in putting the case. Do Government Members not acknowledge that schools are different, and that it is not possible to establish a monolithic system? Do they not acknowledge that schools have different styles and curricula? That is why there is no such thing as a comprehensive school. They are all entirely different. There is no absolute yardstick, no absolute concept. That is what we are saying—and that individuals are different and have different potentials. Why can we not all recognise that? So why not establish a diversified system, at least, say, from 15 years of age? Would the Government not consider some sort of compromise, trying to bring the direct-grant schools into the system at, say, 14 or 15, as The Times Educational Supplement has suggested? I am sure that the schools themselves would consider it. Why insist that every school should try to do everything? The attitude underlies the speeches of most Members opposite. We have had time and time again from the Government side accusations that the direct-grant schools were not good artistically; that they might be all right academically, but that even that was questionable. It was said that they did not teach handicrafts and art as well as do the good comprehensive schools. Why should every school try to reach the same standard in all subjects? But we would need greater flexibility throughout the catchment system. Why cannot young people themselves opt at 14 or 15? Students of that age are quite vocal about what they want today. They are no longer children. They are vocal about what they think they want in the future. Moreover, there must come a point when we, as teachers or administrators, must recognise that some people are good at certain things and not so good at others, that they have a bent for following a certain path in the future, academically or otherwise. So, of course, there must be a point of separation and a point at which selection is made. It is inherent in education and in the nature of human beings. That is really all we are asking—that the system should reflect reality.

There is, however, a crucial difference of philosophy, but we are open-minded while right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side pursue doctrine. They have closed minds. They stand firm on what they have always stood firm on, and that is an image of a school which does not and cannot exist; it is a mythical creation.

What we are questioning is the concept of the comprehensive school. But we can have a comprehensive system, which is something quite different. Within a comprehensive system it is possible to have specialist schools, as happens in America and Russia, for which either the students or the parents, or a combination of both, can opt. In the United States they often opt for the neighbourhood school, but if a student has a certain potential he can go to another school.

Mr. Bryan Davies

We on the Government side of the House are often accused of indulging in dogma when we are argu ing the comprehensive case on precisely the terms which the hon. Gentleman has identified, namely, the necessity for flexibility. There is no more dogmatic statement than the statement than at the age of 11 we know the academic children or the artistic children.

Dr. Hampson

Nobody is arguing that. We are not saying that we can automatically guarantee to tell. But it must emerge that some people are able academically and will benefit from a high academic traditional curriculum. Indeed, some comprehensive schools are almost more like grammar schools than the grammar schools, and certainly some are better in some respects. Let us accept that fact. But we cannot get away from the fact that academic learning is important, and that the training of the intellect is crucial to any modern society.

Therefore, one of our charges in the motion is that what the Government are doing is irrelevant, first, because there is no money. It is also irrelevant and illogical in the context of Labour Party thinking, which despises private education. The Labour Party talks all the time about the social basis of education, saying that schools and their quality are conditioned by the environment, yet the Government are proposing something which will make the situation worse and will create more social division in the system and cause the direct-grant schools, imperfect though they may be on social catchment grounds—as one could argue all schools are—to become more exclusive, either as neighbourhood schools or as private schools.

What the Government propose is also irrelevant and dangerous because of what is happening in the Department, as the civil servants spend their time sorting out the direct grant policy. Surely there are other priorities to be sorted out. Do the Government have any educational priorities clearly established at this time of economic restraint and retrenchment? What is happening about the cost of this exercise?

What the Government propose is irrelevant, particularly at a time when there is no money available for comprehensive reorganisation; but there is a more basic point. Opportunities for good academic learning will be lost, particularly in deprived urban areas where children of certain families could have academic learning from which they would benefit. There is a serious problem in the urban areas, as there is in the United States, where they are highlighted. Therefore, to lose academic learning in an urban community is not only irrelevant and illogical; it is positively dangerous.

The noble Lord the Minister of State said at a conference last week that manpower planning was essential. He believes that education is co-related with economic growth and prosperity. If that is so, this country needs the best quality education it can get. Some of the direct-grant schools offer the best, but the Government propose to drive them out of the reach of ordinary people and to push them into the hands of the rich. That is a topsy-turvy, illogical and silly attitude.

We keep going through these sterile debates. Cannot we achieve some common ground in public life about the need for diversification? Schools are different Let us now try to achieve flexibility between schools. Let us also acknowledge that it is important to strive for the better than average and to produce excellence. The Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Home Secretary, who has just come into the Chamber, surely like to imagine that they are better than average, and perform better than average. Let us acknowledge that, and not simply be concerned with average performance, which so often underlies what Government Members say.

This is a debate not simply about the technicalities of what will happen to the direct-grant schools but about the philosophy of the Conservative and Labour Parties on the nature of education and our education system. It is no good hon. Members opposite pooh-pooing the difficulties in our system and the problems of large neighbourhood comprehensive schools. Why cannot we have common ground? Why must hon. Members opposite attribute to us reaction and backwardness, as so many of them, notably the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, always do?

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) said that at last the Government were doing something which they promised to do many years ago. The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) said that the direct-grant school system was an historical accident which had drifted on, and that it was time that it was chopped. Surely there is no absolute merit in policies. They do not go on immutably from age to age. They must be taken in context—and context changes. Educational thinking changes. The fashions of today are not the fashions of 10 or 20 years ago. Even The Times Educational Supplement and many other commentators are thinking afresh about comprehensive education, and its pattern is changing.

What the Government propose is in reckless disregard of the priorities. They are not thinking clearly and they have not got their priorities sorted out. They are charging ahead with an outmoded and outdated policy which is irrelevant and will waste money. It shows the blocked minds of people who are obsessed with a certain doctrine and who are not prepared to change.

The Times Educational Supplement asked whether the Minister is a "true believer" or an "agnostic". Is he one of the many Members on his side of the House who believe in a monolithic comprehensive system and who seek to create a system which cannot possibly exist, or is he an agnostic? Is he, in other words, prepared to see not a progression of schools but a network, a flexible pattern of different schools catering for different needs and interests? If he is an agnostic he should not be doing what he is doing in his direct-grant proposals.

6.58 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) has been defending one type of school—the direct-grant and grammar school. He is not interested in variety in the rest of the schools.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton), who moved this narrow, legal motion, started by discussing some broad points. He said that comprehensive schools were not big enough to provide adequate sixth forms. He made an excellent case for children ending secondary education at 16 years of age and going on to sixth form colleges. Most of the grammar schools about which he talked do not have adequate sixth forms to give a variety of curriculum or of choice of A level subjects, which could be done by enlarging the scope of the sixth forms.

The whole purpose of the Conservative Party's campaign has been to defend privilege. For the past 30 or 40 years we have seen a gradual retreat. First, right hon. and hon. Members opposite said that they agreed with the abolition of the 11-plus examination. Some of them did. However, when the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Education and Science I asked her whether she agreed with the 11-plus selection examination. She had the effrontery to reply "I have no opinion on that".

That just about sums up what the hon. Member for Streatham put forward today. He said that he did not defend selection at the age of 11, and proceeded to do just that, or at least he tried to do it. Every word he spoke was aimed at the retention of 11-plus selection wherever that could be achieved, and everywhere that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) goes he tries to achieve precisely the same thing. First he tries to persuade the Conservative local education authorities which want to go comprehensive to change their minds, and he uses the legal approach. He talks about direct-grant schools being a breach—

It being Seven o'clock, the proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government business).