HC Deb 05 November 1975 vol 899 cc570-82

11.30 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The subject I am raising tonight relates to the William Tyndale Junion School, Islington. In the form in which this matter appears on the Order Paper, I am asking the Secretary of State to order a special inspection of the school, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science understands that I have taken this course to bring the matter within the rules of order because I want to raise the important general subject and not merely the proposal that there should be a special inspection.

I fully understand that my hon. Friend must feel somewhat circumscribed in what she will be able to say in reply to the debate, because the matter is now in the hands of the Inner London Education Authority and an inquiry is taking place. I hope that some of the general issues to which I draw attention will be noted by the Secretary of State and by the Department, and that some quiet work on these matters can be done while the inquiry is proceeding.

The basic facts of the case are these: the school's roll has been falling fast for some time because parents have been choosing to send their children to other schools; for some time, managers and parents have been disturbed about the standards of teaching at the school; one manager who sought to investigate was denied access to the classes by the headmaster; the head and some teachers claimed that the content and manner of teaching was entirely a matter for them, and was no concern of the managers; eventually the ILEA decided to hold an inquiry.

This affair, which The Guardian's education correspondent has said might become the cause célèbre of educational administration, throws up a number of wide issues which have been disturbing people for some time. There is the question of the rôle of managers and governers of maintained schools. I know that that is the subject of the Taylor Committee, which I hope will regard the William Tyndale School affair as something of a case study.

We must also consider the conflict between traditional and less-structured methods of teaching, but I hasten to add that I do not regard it as accurate to think that that aspect is the substance of the disagreement between teachers in this school and others who criticise them. There is the question of the decline in the frequency and authority of school inspections; there is the means by which disputes of this kind should be resolved; and, finally, there is the part of the Department in the affair.

We have never clearly addressed ourselves in modern times to the question of who should decide matters of curricula and teaching methods in our schools. We pour scorn on stories that in Paris the French know, each day, the exact page over which pupils throughout France are poring, but it can be argued that we go to the opposite extreme of having no curriculum control or influence by the Department of Education. The Department excludes itself from consideration of that subject, and it is generally taken as the accepted wisdom of Parliament that the Department of Education and Science should keep out of these matters. But local education authorities also tend not to interfere in curriculum matters. The result is that, traditionally, that area has been left to the head teacher—but to a great extent it is left not to the head teacher but to individual teachers. It is arguable that many children move from one class to another and from one teacher to another, and are expected to conform to different methods. It is arguable that it is necessary for the Department to take a much more positive rôle in those matters.

I do not think that there is any God-given truth as regards these matters of judgment, but, just as we drive on the left of the road simply because we must drive on one side or the other, and all do the same thing, there is a case for some elements of curricula and teaching method to be accepted as standard. We should not inflict on our children the confusion that results from frequent changes in educational fashion.

One of the most fundamental responsibilities of the Department is to introduce proposals on who should run our schools, not in the easy area of financial control but in the difficult area of teaching method and content. It should put behind it the old bogy that if it interferes in this matter we shall have a sort of Hitler Youth system in Britain. We do not suffer from too much central control in education. I argue that we suffer a great deal from having too little.

Coming to the Tyndale affair, it would be trite to say that the school exists for the benefit of the children and not for the benefit of the Inner London Education Authority or the teachers, but I want to stress the extent to which the interests of the children are being buried under a mountain of formal procedure, which is growing daily, in this case.

This is what the pupils of that school have had to undergo in the last few weeks. On 22nd September, the head and most of the teachers went on strike because ILEA, the authority responsible for the school and the education of the children in it, decided to carry out an inspection and inquiry. The school was closed for two days while that strike was on. Then the inspectors acted as teachers for three days, The following week a temporary team of teachers and a temporary head took over, the permanent team being still on strike and offering their services to pupils in a nearby hall.

The temporary team, for whom I have heard nothing but the highest praise, continued for two and a half weeks, until the striking teachers decided that they would like to return to work on 16th October. The teachers who had been on strike taught for seven days, until they were given paid leave of absence to attend the inquiry, and then another temporary team was installed in the school, and is still there.

Imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the disruption that that series of events means to the children in their class work, quite apart from the unsettlement caused by seeing their teachers picketing outside their school and the school made the subject of massive Press and television coverage. But the uncertainty is not over. The teachers who went on strike have inquired about the question of going back to the school during the prolonged period of the inquiry. They are on leave of absence not until the inquiry reports but until it ceases to require their attendance. So the children may have to have the old team back for at least one other period.

I do not want to be unfair to teachers who are the subject of an inquiry and who may be the subject of disciplinary proceedings—and anyone will appreciate the problem for an education authority in this situation—but I say that the interests of the teachers, even if it turned out that they had been entirely blameless, are as nothing compared to the interests of the children.

In this situation, whoever is at fault it is not the children, but it is they and they alone who are suffering, and they are suffering very greatly. These children are, for the most part, those who need, more than most, good, stable tuition in the basic human skills. If they do not get through the basics at school, that deficiency will not, for most of them, be made up by parental activity in the home. The parents desperately want their children to be taught, and the parents cannot be expected to substitute for the school.

The series of events comes on top of a situation which clearly disturbed the ILEA inspectors who inspected the school while the teachers were on strike. They criticised a number of aspects. I shall not quote the criticisms, because they have had a good deal of Press coverage, but the inspectors concluded their report by saying that the condition of the school as presented to them was such as to warrant a full inspection at the earliest opportunity.

I want to make it quite clear that I am talking about the junior school, and that the report on the infants' school was a very favourable one. The staff of the infants' school, and the ILEA, in respect of its responsibility for the infants' school, are to be congratulated on the good quality of that report.

It is the duty of the ILEA to get the junior school staffed on a permanent basis now, without waiting until the end of the inquiry. If, at the end of the inquiry, the teachers are found to have been blameless, the inquiry can easily make that fact clear by public statement and ensure that their careers do not suffer in the future. The public would then understand—as would the teaching profession—that the children have to be put first.

I come to the manner in which the ILEA has dealt with the situation. There are those who say that the authority should have been active on the alleged deficiencies of the school long ago, but I shall pick up the story only from the time of the decision to hold the inquiry.

On the day that the inspectors arrived at the school to carry out the inspection which was to be the basis of the inquiry, the head and most of the teachers went on strike, picketed the school, set themselves up in a neighbouring hall, and invited and encouraged some of the children to go with them. That action was taken in protest against the holding of the inquiry.

The teachers went on strike because the local education authority, set up by Parliament to run the school, decided to investigate one of its schools. Of course, teachers have a right to strike, just like anyone else, but teachers who did so because the education authority did what it had the right and duty to do should have been suspended. For reasons that I do not comprehend, the ILEA decided not to suspend them, so when the inspectors had done what they could to keep the school going, and when a temporary team had been in charge for two and a half weeks, the striking teachers were free to stop their strike and return to the class rooms, which is what they did. Hence the constant chopping and changing to which I have referred.

Apart from the failure to suspend the teachers there have been several changes of plans for the inquiry. First, the inquiry was to be carried out by the ILEA's Schools Committee. Then it was agreed that there should be an independent chairman along with members of the Schools Committee. Then it was decided that members of the Schools Committee would not be appropriate people to serve on the inquiry because questions of the ILEA's behaviour might have to be raised. Also, what had been thought likely to be a one-week inquiry began to look like taking several weeks, and members of the Schools Committee could not spare that amount of time. Now, the inquiry is in the hands of an independent chairman and a couple of advisers. That decision was announced as late as the morning when the inquiry was due to begin.

Since then there has been confusion over the availability of documents in the inquiry. The inquiry was suspended for a day or two, and later for a whole week. It is now expected that it will not be completed before next year.

Not only has the time taken by the inquiry escalated; the formality of the proceedings has become increasingly intimidating. Legal counsel paid for by the ILEA are representing the main parties—the authority, the managers and the teachers. There has been a claim for legal representation of the parents, which, so far, has been rejected by the authority. In that formal setting the parents will have a problem in putting over their point of view. The inquiry is being held at County Hall, not in the area of the school, which means that parents will have difficulty in attending. Even if they go to County Hall it is possible that they will not get in, because the 50 or so seats are taken up by the Press and television. The whole inquiry operation is taking off into the stratosphere, and I find it hard to see how it will get back on the ground within a reasonable period. It is almost like a fashionable murder trial at the Old Bailey.

Meanwhile, back in Islington, the temporary teachers are valiantly struggling to do their best for the education of the children—who are what the whole thing is about.

I want the Minister to take this point on board. There just has to be some simpler and quicker way of settling disputes of this kind. There needs to be a way of picking up these matters at an earlier stage, when they can be resolved by conciliation and administrative action rather than by a grand public trial.

There can be strong criticism of the old-style school inspectors and the fact that the old teachers were telling the young teachers to stick to the old ways. But what we have done is run down that system and put nothing in its place except the idea that each teacher is his own master, and entitled to do his own thing.

If cases like this are allowed to grow into causes célèbres, the likelihood is that they will end up with the closing down of schools which could have been saved. We saw this, in the same area, with Risinghill, and I fear that the ILEA will find itself resolving the William Tyndale issue by the same device. Yet we need that school in Islington, if only because the infants' school in the building has such a good record and has been reported on so well.

I hope that I have said enough to convince my hon. Friend that, whatever protestations she feels obliged to make about her semi-independence from the matter, and non-involvement in it, there are points which ought to disturb her, and matters which call for action. It is for that reason that I repeat what I have said to her and the Secretary of State before, namely, that a representative of the Department of Education ought to be present as an observer at the inquiry.

I do not think it would be appropriate at this stage for the Department to be involved actively in the inquiry but, to put it at the lowest, the Department will look very foolish if this matter ends up in its lap without its having a direct source of knowledge about the conduct of the inquiry. No verbatim record is being kept, and, therefore, the only alternative source of information will be from the authority itself. For that reason, I ask my hon. Friend to arrange that there should be a Department of Education and Science presence, known to the ILEA, of course, by means of an observer, for the remaining part of the inquiry, and I hope, too, that the Department will set about considering some of the wider issues that are raised by the affair.

11.48 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Joan Lestor)

As my hon. Friend has said, because an inquiry is taking place on this school it is difficult for me to comment on some of the matters that he has raised. But I am grateful to him for drawing the attention of the House and others concerned to this very difficult situation, which has arisen as a result of the dispute at the William Tyndale Junior School.

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned, and I have listened with great interest to everything he said. The tragedy is, of course, that the children at the school at present are caught up in a dispute not of their making but out of which they are likely to suffer. I am sure that no one would disagree when I say that their future well-being must be the concern of all of us, and I am sure that is my hon. Friend's concern and that that is why he raised the matter. The immediate task is to create conditions in which good relations can prevail between all those concerned with the school in order that the education of these children can be conducted in a relatively calm fashion.

My hon. Friend has already outlined in full the problems which have arisen. I can reassure him that my right hon. Friend and I are by no means unaware of the situation or by no means uninformed of it. Not only have we seen the considerable publicity given in the Press to events at the school, but my Department is keeping abreast of these developments. Nevertheless, it is understandable that my hon. Friend should consider it appropriate and important that a special inspection of the school should be conducted. I shall try to explain to him what are the difficulties in respect of this at the present time.

As my hon. Friend and others are aware, William Tyndale School is a school falling under the terms of the Education Act 1944, which brings it within the responsibility of the local education authority—the ILEA. It is, therefore, for the ILEA to meet all the costs of running the school and to make the instrument providing for the appointment of the managing body—although Section 18 of the Education Act 1944 specifically provides that a proportion of the managers should be appointed by the minor authority for the area.

I understand that in this case the London borough of Islington appoints a proportion of the managers. The effect of these arrangements, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, is that the ILEA is responsible for the school and that this responsibility extends to ensuring that the education offered by the school is efficient and is suitable for the age, ability and aptitude of all the pupils in it. This is an important position to establish at this time.

It would be quite wrong for me to comment on the detailed circumstances of the situation at a time when a public inquiry is being conducted into those very circumstances. Not only might any such comments be prejudicial to the course of the inquiry; they might also have the effect of prejudicing any subsequent decision that my right hon. Friend might have to take in accordance with his statutory powers.

An approach has already been made to my right hon. Friend requesting him to use his powers to set up a public inquiry into the general situation, and, once the conclusions of the present inquiry are known, it will obviously be necessary for my right hon. Friend to reach a formal decision on this request.

I am sure, therefore, that my hon. Friend will realise why I cannot make any detailed comment on some of the things he has said in relation to the subject being discussed at this inquiry.

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that, under the provisions of Section 77 of the Education Act 1944, my right hon. Friend has the power to cause an inspection of the school to take place if he so wishes. No request for such an inspection has been made to my right hon. Friend by the ILEA, the managers or, indeed, the teachers at the school. My right hon. Friend was, however, officially informed by the ILEA, in August, that, in the light of the events at the school, it was the Authority's intention to arrange for an inquiry to be held in public, under an independent chairman, into the teaching, organisation and management of the school. My right hon. Friend was further informed that the inquiry would be preceded by an inspection of both the infants' and junior schools by ILEA inspectors, and that he would, in due course, be informed of the findings of the inquiry and of any consequent actions proposed by the Authority.

In the light of this information, it would have been quite inappropriate for my right hon. Friend to cause a special inspection to be made at that time. My right hon. Friend does, of course, know about the events that took place when ILEA officials commenced their inspection, and the present position, I understand, is that the inquiry is under way and the teachers concerned are not in the school. Consequently, it would not have been appropriate, as I have said, for a further inspection to take place at this time.

Quite apart from these points, however, there is a more general reason why it would have been inappropriate to set up another inquiry. Despite the national publicity that recent events have caused, problems have originated at the local level between the staff, the managers, the parents and the local education authority. It is, therefore, only common sense that in the first instance it is they who must try to find a solution. They recognise this and they are endeavouring to do so. If after the inquiry has reported and the Authority has deliberated its conclusions, no satisfactory outcome seems likely to emerge, it may become necessary for my right hon. Friend to consider what action on his part, if any, could help.

Mr. George Cunningham

The trouble is that this inquiry will go on for weeks and weeks, and it may be impossible to shorten the process without some intervention by the DES. If there were an intervention, formal or informal, it would prove to have been useful for the Department to be informed. Does the Department feel that it can provide a presence at the inquiry, on an observer basis? If my hon. Friend's answer is "Yes", I shall be delighted. If it is "No", will she please not give the answer now, but take the point on board and think about giving me a favourable answer after considering it?

Miss Lestor

I shall take on board my hon. Friend's point. At the moment, it is fair to say that the view of my right hon. Friend and the Department is that we wish to do nothing that is likely in any way to put us in a position of non-neutrality in respect of any action that we may be asked to take on the basis of the report of the inquiry. My hon. Friend asks me not to answer "No". I am always anxious to please him. But he understands the very delicate nature of this matter, bearing in mind that at some stage the Secretary of State may be asked to comment on it.

I was a little concerned to hear my hon. Friend say that no verbatim account of the inquiry is being kept. I am not sure whether he is implying that it will not be a very full account. I should like to know more about this, and I shall look into it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that we would not wish to intervene in any way to influence the course of events at this stage. Most people have formed opinions about what has taken place at the school, based on Press reports and other comments. We are doing our best to make no comment and to form no opinion until the inquiry has ended. Only then shall we be in a position to make a judgment if we are called upon to do so.

We are concerned to see, as soon as possible, the fairest and most satisfactory outcome, both for the school and for all the children in it. I am a little disturbed about the length of time that the inquiry may take.

There are one or two other matters that it is difficult to comment on at this stage. The question of more central control of curriculum content in our schools is often discussed in the House and in various parts of the country, but it is not a matter on which any governmental view has been reached or which we have discussed in great detail. It is a topic that someone may wish to raise in the House as a general point at some time.

The point is well taken, also, that we might seek to find a way of settling disputes of this kind more quickly than the present system permits. However, the interim inquiry report has been published and the full inquiry is under way. I can assure my hon. Friend that, without missing any of the information and discussion that is taking place, the Department must keep a profile of neutrality, in case it is called upon to make a judgment at the end of the day.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.