HC Deb 08 November 1976 vol 919 cc174-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

9.48 p.m.

Mr. Terry Walker (Kingswood)

The subject that I raise tonight is one that is of great concern to many councillors, teachers and parents living in the county of Avon, for when the chief education officer of a large county like Avon resigns it is a serious matter indeed, and it has aroused great public concern throughout the county.

Derrick Williams was a very conscientious and accessible chief education officer and was highly regarded by the teaching profession throughout the county. His resignation has brought to a head a serious crisis of corporate management throughout the county. Mr. Williams, explaining to the education committee why he was leaving to take up a lower-paid job, said he was not against corporate management but was against Avon's version of it. He said in his resignation speech: I find too little corporate management and too many un-co-ordinated managers. I do not and cannot exercise the responsibilities the education committee and your schools and colleges expect of me and my departmental staff. The management of the education service is fragmented between so many committees and administrative departments of the council that there is no united or effective direction of it. The education committee cannot exercise that direction and nor can I…My work is concerned with practicalities and it disturbs me deeply that the consequences of your management system are being felt directly in your schools and colleges, which matter most; governors, managers, heads and principals are confused because they are serving so many masters. Avon's version of the management structure is in our view wasteful and insensitive. The chief education officer is not free to get the confidence of heads or staff in the running of the schools system.

The teacher's representative on the education committee raised the matter of the functioning of the education committee and the education department at Avon House 18 months ago. He was ruled out of order by the chairman of the education committee who said that that was a matter for the full council. That was a way of sweeping things under the carpet—until now, when the chief education officer has decided that he has no option other than to resign. He has done this not because he wanted to do so, but because he was not allowed to do his job. The row in Avon is all about who runs education within the county.

What is being complained about is the system in which it seems that every officer, department and committee in the hierachy is able to issue instructions direct to schools and to education staff dealing with details and basic principles without any reference to the chief education officer or the education committee. It is the chief education officer who should issue such instructions because of his special knowledge. He has the ability to interpret these matters.

There is nothing left in Avon for the chief education officer to do except deploy teachers. Whereas before headmasters dealt with the education committee and the chief education officer and his department, they must now deal with estate services, with the land and buildings committee, the county architect's department and the personnel department. They are inundated by letters and directives from these departments, and they have to cope with actions taken by people who have no knowledge of education and the way in which schools work. Many of these decisions take away the powers given to heads, governors and managers in the 1944 Education Act to deal with buildings and staff. There are so many masters that no one knows who is responsible for what.

There have been instances of builders arriving at schools that were in the middle of holding examinations. There have been instances of holes being dug in playgrounds or trees being chopped down without the school knowing anything about it. The head's management function makes him responsible for all staff within the school, yet the personnel department has taken away responsibility for all non-teaching staff. It has taken away control over the duties of caretakers and school meals staff.

The chief architects of Avon's corporate management system, the Conservative-controlled council, have so far maintained a stiff upper lip in this dispute. They have shown outward indifference to the turmoil created by the resignation of the chief education officer. They are trying to pretend that there is nothing wrong. The chairman and the chief executive of Avon have behaved in a dictatorial manner over too many matters.

One such instance was the case of the careers advisory officer. In spite of recent legislation intended to reaffirm the close links between careers advice and education, because it is essential that this starts in schools, the chairman and the chief executive of Avon decided that the careers service should report to the community and leisure committee, which controls youth services. This decision was final, the chief education officer's hands were tied and he had to accept that ruling.

It is no wonder that the Society of Education Officers has issued a statement urging applicants who want to apply for the Avon job to get in touch with it before they do, because it is a serious situation. The chief education officer of Somerset, who is a member of the society's national executive, said: We want discussions to establish that whoever succeeds Mr. Williams will be able to take full control of the education service. The Bristol head teachers have also asked for an inquiry, and the Bristol Polytechnic Branch of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education has also called for a public inquiry into the system of corporate management in the county of Avon.

I have also had a letter from the western region of the association which says that it regrets, the resignation of Mr. Derrick Williams, the Chief Education Officer for Avon, and is deeply concerned about the circumstances which have necessitated this important decision. The Branch places on record its appreciation of the work done by Mr. Williams over a period of years and wishes him well for the future. The Branch deplores the frustration, disillusionment and lowering of morale which increasingly pervades many sectors of public administration within the County, not least in the area of Education. In consequence, the Branch appeals to all local MPs to approach the appropriate Minister to institute an enquiry into the administration of the Avon Authority in general, and of the Education Department in particular. It is no wonder that this kind of thing has happened because we have some excellent people in the education departments at Avon House, but they must have job descriptions. That has been refused by the county council for a long time. If they are to stay with us, they must have these job descriptions.

As well as being a Member of Parliament, I am a parent in the county of Avon. It is important to me that the best man succeeds Derrick Williams as chief education officer. Therefore, the air must be cleared of all this suspicion of what has gone wrong. In my view an inquiry is the only way in which we can clear the air and put the matter straight.

As well as the matters that I have raised there have been some political overtones about what has happened in the county. The allocation of school places is made by the chief education officer of the education department. It has come to my notice, and has been brought to my notice, that the chairman of the education committee has seen fit to overrule the chief education officer with regard to the allocation of some places.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

Mr. Walker

One such case was that in which the chief education officer had ruled that a child must go to school in his catchment area. But the chairman of the education committee, on appeal and having pressure put on him by the local county councillor, who happens to be the prospective Conservative candidate for my constituency, upheld that resolution and overruled the chief education officer himself.

If that kind of thing is happening, if that kind of cheating is going on, with political overtones, it is little wonder that someone like Derrick Williams, who is completely divorced from these things, should choose to resign. It comes back in the end to the crucial rôle of the chief education officer. Mr. Williams asked the chief executive of the county of Avon a year ago for a definition of his rôle. Up to this time, there has been no response to that request.

In asking the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry into the reasons for the resignation of the chief education officer, I am deeply concerned that we get the right calibre of man to follow Mr. Williams. We shall not get him unless the air is cleared by a public inquiry.

The ruling party in Avon, the Conservatives as they are now, have tended to run the whole county and the education department in particular as despots. They must be put in their place when they interfere in education.

The responsible people of Avon, the governors, headmasters, teachers and parents—I believe that pupils must be protected—are all concerned about the allegations which have been made and need to be assured that the new chief education officer will be allowed to take full control of the education services without interference. That is vital for all of us and we look to the Secretary of State to take action on our behalf.

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I am grateful in the few moments available to me for the opportunity to speak on this subject. It is as well to remember in the first instance that we are talking about a comparatively new county council which has had the mammoth task of welding together four constituent parts which previously had four different administrations.

That would have been a difficult task in the most favourable possible circumstances, but in the inevitable stresses and strains which result from cuts in public expenditure imposed by the Government those strains are bound to be greater. They are bound to be especially great when one is dealing with a service like education, which is both a big spender and a big employer and, therefore, vulnerable to rising costs and inflation and the other economic problems that the country faces. It is as well to remember that that is the background to this problem.

There is no doubt—on this point I agree with the hon. Member for Kings-wood (Mr. Walker)—that there is concern about the problems which have arisen with regard to the way in which corporate management has been operating in Avon. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to criticise the chairman of the county council and the chief executive and to talk about a stiff upper lip attitude. That sort of approach, with the political overtones that the hon. Gentleman introduced, is not likely to contribute to the satisfactory solution of the problem which we all wish to see. The county council understands this concern and shares it. It is anxious to deal with the problems which have arisen and to find the right solutions to them.

I cannot in the brief time available to me follow the hon. Gentleman in his detailed arguments, but I wish to comment briefly on the appeal he made to the Under-Secretary of State for an inquiry by the Department of Education and Science into the reasons for the resignation of the chief education officer. I feel sure that any advice or help that the Department can give will be welcomed, but I suggest that the problems which have arisen are primarily a matter for the county council.

The county council is responsible for administering the service in the county against the background of Government policy, and it is appropriate that the county council should resolve these problems in the light of the knowledge it has. I am sure, too, that before coming to a clear view on the right way forward the county council will wish to discuss the matter with the new chief education officer when he is appointed by the education committee and to get his views as to what changes are appropriate. I hope that, in considering the appeal that has been put to her. the Under-Secretary of State will remember these points, in particular that the primary responsibility here lies with the county council.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

The hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) and I are much interested, because of our constituency responsibilities, in the affairs of the county council. Is not much of the difficulty that Councillor Gervas Walker combines the functions of chairman and leader of the majority party? No man should take so much power to himself.

Mr. Dean

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view on that. I do not intend to comment on the detailed way in which the duly elected county council carries out its responsibilities; it would be inappropriate for me to do so. It is a matter for the county council to decide, and we shall not assist in the proper resolution of the problem by making detailed criticism or trying to persuade the Department to exercise responsibilities that properly lie with the county council.

I hope that any advice and assistance that the Under-Secretary of State can offer to the county council will be made available. I hope that she will also recognise—and will say so in response to this debate—that this is primarily a matter for the county council to resolve and that she believes that it firmly intends to do just that.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

I wish to make a brief intervention in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) in his appeal to the Secretary of State for Education and Science to conduct an inquiry into the situation in the county of Avon.

It has been suggested that my hon. Friend was asking for an inquiry simply and solely into the resignation of the chief education officer of the county of Avon. I think that his brief went further than that. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree—and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) will also agree—that what is needed is an inquiry into the whole educational set-up in the county of Avon and also into the question of corporate management. I have never been a great supporter of the concept of corporate management. Since the presentation of the Bains Report a good deal of discussions has taken place about this matter, but it appears that the subject of corporate management has thrown up far greater problems in Avon than it has ever solved. Therefore, what is required is a more comprehensive inquiry than simply an inquiry into the reasons why the chief education officer resigned.

Representations have also been made to me from teachers in higher and further education and from teachers in other education sectors, as well as from parents and those who are directly responsible for the schools at the grass roots. I believe that in the past the record of Bristol City Council in educational terms was second to none. However, since the reorganisation of local government and since the advent of corporate management, with all that that implies, I am afraid that the education service has deteriorated and morale is being undermined. Larger problems lie ahead. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will initiate a comprehensive and detailed inquiry into the situation.

10.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

The concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) about the effectiveness of education in his constituency and in the county of Avon in general is well known, as indeed is the concern of other hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. Therefore, it is very much a matter of regret for us all that the occasion for this debate is the resignation of the chief education officer for Avon.

As I understand the situation, my hon. Friend initiated this debate largely to examine the reasons behind this resignation. As has become clear, the chief education officer set out his reasons in his resignation statement. He said that the management pattern adopted by the county council hindered the efficient organisation of the education service. While not dissenting from the principle of corporate management, he believed that in Avon neither the education committee nor he could exercise effective direction of the educational service because of fragmentation of its management. He recognised, however, the responsibility of the county council—a responsibility which the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) sought to highlight—to decide the management system and how it operated, and he recognised that, since he felt unable to operate effectively within that system, it was best for him to resign.

As my hon. Friend has explained, the new county of Avon covers an area previously served by four separate local authorities—Bristol, Bath, and parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire. The task of the local education authority and its officers in creating a single education service for a population of 1 million would have been considerable even if finance had not been a problem. To have had to do so against a background of increas- ing financial stringency has inevitably imposed great strains on the officers and members of the authority. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that in the authority, among education officers and in the schools themselves considerable bewilderment and frustration have been engendered by what has taken place there.

However, as the hon. Member for Somerset, North said, there is no question but that management within local government is a local responsibility and is a matter for local decision, a decision which the chief education officer recognised when he chose to resign rather than work within it. But it is legitimate for the House to consider whether provision of an effective education system is helped or hindered by the system of management adopted by local government.

The Bains Report was surely correct in concluding that there is no one perfect system of management in local government, any more than in any other sphere of activity. The needs and priorities of individual areas differ widely; they will change from time to time and local government administration must be sufficiently flexible and adaptive to meet those changing needs. The criticism of corporate management in itself seems mainly to be of its application. It is true that throughout the country chief education officers have had a particularly difficult time with, as I have said, the introduction of corporate management into new local areas at a time of severe financial stringency. Since education accounts for the largest part of a local authority's budget, it is inevitable that it will come in for close scrutiny, and officers will have to spend a substantial part of their time seeking to justify this expenditure to bodies other than the education committee.

This could well be so whatever form of management is adopted. I am aware that several chief education officers have expressed their strong concern about possible damage to the education service which the application of corporate management might be causing.

In Avon itself, Mr. Williams's resignation statement has led to several groups expressing their concern to the county council about the way in which corporate management is being applied within the authority. Under the system of devolved responsibility which we have, it must be for the council and its chief executive to consider, in the light of that expressed concern and the examples of problems referred to by my hon. Friend, whether there is a need, perhaps an urgent need, to review the system's operation in Avon.

I much regret, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and, I believe, all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, that the chief education officer of Avon has felt unable to continue in his post. The appointment of a new chief education officer and any reassessment of the application of corporate management in Avon which the county council may make will give an opportunity for a fresh start in Avon on the task of running an education service in a manner which will effectively promote the best interests of all its citizens.

Two of my hon. Friends have asked for a public inquiry to be conducted by the Department of Education and Science. There are two aspects of this matter which concern me. One is that it is not altogether clear what power the Department has to conduct a public inquiry. I shall look into this question and, with his permission, write to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood.

Secondly, it occurs to me that, in so far as the whole question of the resignation of the chief education officer is involved with the question of corporate management, this may be regarded as a matter not merely for the Department of Education and Science. On both those points I shall make further inquiry and write to my hon. Friend. Like him, I express my regret and concern that we have had to have this debate tonight in such unhappy circumstances.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

I had not intended to intervene, but as a few minutes remain I wish to say a few words since my constituents also are affected. The Minister was right to point out in the earlier part of her speech that the real reason for the debate was not to press for an inquiry itself but to open up a discussion on the reasons for the resignation of the chief education officer. It is true also that if the hon. Member for Bristol. North-West (Mr. Thomas) wanted a wider inquiry, as he appeared to do, this debate should have been addressed not to the Department of Education and Science but to the Minister responsible for local government, as the Minister herself pointed out.

Mr. Ron Thomas

I accept that if I were asking for an inquiry into the whole matter of corporate management, that would not be for the Department of Education and Science; but as I asked for an inquiry in terms of education and its provision in Avon, I think that it is a matter for my hon. Friend's Department.

Mr. Cope

The hon. Gentleman went on to criticise the chairman of the council, who is also leader of the majority group. That may or may not be a valid criticism; it is a matter for the council to decide. This House would be offended, rightly, if other bodies attempted to interfere in the way we chose the Chairmen of our Committees, but the Chairman of one of our Committees is in much the same position in carrying out his duties as is the chairman of a council committee.

The hon. Member made clear that he does not support corporate management. But Mr. Williams made clear that he supported the system, although not the version being applied in Avon in the education service. It is a matter for the council to decide the system of management it is to operate, not only in education but in other matters.

We are discussing devolution a great deal nowadays. It would be intolerable for this House, having devolved powers to other bodies—in this case, a county council—to attempt to interfere with them in carrying out the tasks that the House had set them. We do not lay down in advance the way in which such bodies should carry out their tasks, and we should not attempt to interfere afterwards. But it is not uncharacteristic of the Labour Party that it should wish Whitehall to interfere in the way in which the education service is run in Avon. Today we have been discussing other methods of interference from Whitehall in the ways in which education is run.

There is a case for centralised management by the authority as a whole of the three principal areas in education—personnel, plans, building and maintenance, and financial control, particularly the latter. It is true that the education committee has overspent considerably on the budget allocated by the county council, and that is a serious matter which the council itself needs to take into account, particularly at this time. I am sure that the Government would not dissent from that view. Public money is not easily come by at this time, and it is difficult for county councils and the Government to decide the priorities within the funds available.

The Avon County Council must be able to make this decision, and it is then up to its various committees to see that their services are carried out to the best advantage with the money available. It is important that the personnel services should be handled centrally. There is at least a strong case for that. We should rightly criticise if we discovered that clerks in the education department, for example, were being paid or treated differently from those in other branches of the council who were doing similar jobs. The same applies to the maintenance of land and buildings.

There is a very good example in the constituency of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) of the way in which corporate management works together to solve problems. In the summer holidays this year Kingsfield School was burned down. All the stops were pulled out by the county council, not least of all by the chairman, who was criticised earlier tonight, in order to get the school reopened by the beginning of the autumn term. In just four weeks temporary buildings were provided and the whole thing got under way again, so that by the start of the autumn term the school was able to function.

Mr. Terry Walker

What has that to do with corporate management? This sort of thing has been done before. It happened long before the hon. Member ever came to the South-West.

Mr. Cope

The hon. Member says that it had happened before. The example I gave was much more recent, and it reflects creditably on the areas in which the county council worked together. The council got the school reopened. The hon. Member is entitled to his opinion, but in my view that reflects well on corporate management.

There is a case at least to be made for central management of these three functions from the education service. It is for the county council to decide the way in which it will organise its affairs and organise the system which it has a duty to run. It would be a mistake for the Department to set up an inquiry of this kind and attempt to interfere with the way in which this is done, and I am glad that the Minister replied as she did.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.