HC Deb 11 October 1976 vol 917 cc204-14

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

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I wish to raise the subject of the Central Advisory Councils for Education for England and Wales respectively. I do so against the background of the Tenth Report from the Expenditure Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 621, on "Policy Making in the Department of Education and Science". One of the recommendations was that there should be a Standing Commission for Education.

The second document to which I wish to refer as a background to this matter is the Official Report of an Adjournment debate which I initiated on 22nd October 1971, answered by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Section 4 of the 1944 Education Act set up two Central Advisory Councils for Education, one for England and one for Wales. Subsection (1) reads: There shall be two Central Advisory Councils for Education, one for England and the other for Wales and Monmouthshire, and it shall be the duty of those Councils to advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him. Section 5 says specifically that: The Minister shall make to Parliament an annual report giving an account of the exercise and performance of the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon him by this Act and of the composition and proceedings of the Central Advisory Councils for Education. In the debate on 22nd October 1971 I gave in some detail the background to that legislation, including references to the Official Report of the Committee stage. I showed clearly that the legislators of the time thought that the councils should have a central rôle. Indeed, an advisory council had been in existence from the earliest days of centralised education. The requirement of a report to Parliament was added to the measure in Committee.

In that Adjournment debate I showed that in the past few years—now, I am afraid, for eight years—successive Secretaries of State for Education and Science of both parties had flouted the Act. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) on the Opposition Front Bench. His right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley at the Government Dispatch Box point blank refused to implement Section 4. I hope that she will remember that when she talks about law and order.

The reason I am raising this matter yet again after a period of five years is the appearance of the Select Committee Report to which I have referred. It is now generally recognised—and not before time—that the Department of Education and Science is a secretive organisation and a body of questionable efficiency. The Expenditure Committee suggested that there should be a standing commission to act as a check or balance on the secretive and centralised actions of the Department.

Having taught in a classroom for 12 years, I, too, have my views about that Department, as indeed do most practising teachers. They regard the Department as a not very practicable set-up. Therefore, this underlined the importance of the Central Advisory Councils. The councils had the power of initiative and under the Act could advise the Minister on matters connected with educational theory and practice, as it thought fit. That power of initiative—a power not possessed by other organisations set up by the Minister—was very important.

The fact that the Department is regarded by many people with some cynicism is not necessarily the fault of the Department. It is clear from various memoranda that the Department works in close relationship to the Treasury and deals with quantitative rather than qualitative matters. In the last resort education in the deepest and most fundamental sense takes place in the classroom when the learning environment is qualitative.

That has been a fundamental paradox of the problems of education in the last few years. Unfortunately, the Department does not realise it. It is said in the Select Committee's Report by Sir Toby Weaver, a former head of the Department, that the Department are kept in close and constant touch with what is going on in the field … I believe that it is as in touch with what goes on in the field as was the general staff in touch with affairs at the battle of Passchendaele. The Central Advisory Councils operated as a short-circuit to this system, right from the classroom floor up to the Department.

However, when I called on the right hon. Lady in that earlier debate to activate these councils and to operate the Act as intended and as the law required, she replied "No". It is wrong to say that other bodies would have been able to do the job better. It is true that many different types of committee have been set up, but it is clear from the evidence of Professor Vaizey on page 56 of the Tenth Report from the Expenditure Committee that it was the officials who made policy and not the Minister. It must be remembered that none of the other bodies had the power of initiative possessed by the Central Advisory Councils. Therefore, Professor Vaizey's point is well underlined by what happened in the earlier debate. I hope that after five years' lack of legal operations in this sphere, my right hon. Friend who is now Secretary of State for Education and Science will take another look at the matter.

My hon. Friend may be about to say that there will be a Government reply to this sub-committee statement and therefore he cannot say anything about it tonight. I would not be surprised if that were the case, and in some ways I have sympathy with that view. With the publication of this report we ought now to get off on a new footing altogether. It is about time that the secret garden of the Department of Education and Science was broken into. I hope that this report has done that. The secret garden is not just a matter of the curriculum. It is about the way in which the Department has operated in the past. I hope that it will not operate in that way in future.

In my maiden speech in this House I pointed out that education administration at all levels was perhaps inverting its priorities and not only was education administration all the way down the line, Elizabeth House, unrealistic but education administration all the way down the line even perhaps as far as the headmaster's study, was unrealistic because what it did was to impose a series of quantifiable restrictions, options and administrative formulae on a situation which is essentially not susceptible to quantification but which, rather, is virtually entirely qualitative.

The education process has no tangible product, unlike some other matters with which we are concerned in this House. Ultimately it is not teaching that matters, it is learning; and a person will not learn unless he has had proper motivation. I believe that quite a lot of so-called educational debate and discussion we have had in the past five years or 10 years has not been fundamentally realistic. A lot of it has been related to matters of secondary selection and so on and to the new methods which have come into schools. This is, perhaps, rather doctrinaire. The fundamental things have been ignored.

I suggest that when my right hon. Friend sets up, once again, the Central Advisory Councils, which should have a legal obligation to do, they might consider at least four areas which have been rather neglected in the past few years. First, there is the mathematics mess. I will not enlarge on that. Everyone knows what I mean. One of the features of English secondary education has been that undue influence has been exercised on the curriculum by universities. Not that I discount the need for higher and further education—far from it. But it is not good preparing people in school for courses which only a tiny proportion will ever take. While it may be fine for mathematically able pupils to begin to understand something of what years ago would have been taught only at university, it does not help if they cannot multiply or add up when they leave school at 16.

Then there is the teacher training area. Teacher training was vastly expanded in the early sixties, with a terrible drain on the resources of school in terms of lecturer staff. There was considerable disquiet in the late sixties about how teacher education was carried out. It was almost entirely divorced from the needs of schools. I might add, in parenthesis, that this is the sort of thing which happens in English education.

Parliament set up a Select Committee which was unfortunately interrupted in its work in 1970. Had that Select Committee continued its work I am sure that it would have turned up some useful and important information. Instead the right hon. Member for Finchley set up the James Committee, in respect of which she did not even publish statistical evidence to back up its views and to which evidence was given in private by some people from the Department and from other notables in education—a good example of the bad way in which things were going along.

In this country we need to recruit teachers from the age of 25 onwards, after they have spent some time in some other occupation. That is a matter that I have mentioned repeatedly to teachers, heads, principals of education and education administrators. They all say "Yes, that is the ideal. That is what we should like." Why not? Perhaps they will now have a chance to rethink the whole issue. We have not got very far along that road without Central Advisory Councils and without a Select Committee.

There is the whole question of secondary rationale. So many of our debates have been rather sterile although I happen to be a strong supporter of comprehensive education. However, that does not go far enough. We have never had a secondary rationale since the war. That is because the prestige of secondary education was retained in the pre-war grammar schools. Whatever their functions may have been then, they were certainly not secondary education for all. Therefore, we have never had a proper secondary rationale since the end of the war. The Crowther Report, the Newsom Report and the Central Advisory Councils show this split attitude to what was a fundamental part of our education scene.

The next matter that perhaps the Central Advisory Councils should consider—this is of fundamental importance and is brought out to some extent by the report, but not as much as I should like—is the role of the inspectorate. Years ago Her Majesty's Inspectors were very independent of the Department. They stood aside. Their fundamental commitment was to education with a capital E. But what has happened since, particularly since local government reorganisation and the spread of their responsibilities? I am told that in many cases they have become ambassadors for the Department. It is said that they have become interpreters. They serve as go-between boys. To some extent that is a good role for them, but I understand that even the inspectors sometimes find it difficult to interpret the policies that are coming out of the Department.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider the reactivation of the inspectorate as a corporate body of wise men and women which, to some extent, stands on one side, a body which is able to go into the classrooms, gather the information and put it into the places where it really counts. On occasions perhaps it should exercise the role which it exercised historically rather than the role which perforce it has had to take in the past few years.

Finally, there is the whole issue of the curriculum. I shall not go into matters which obviously have to be discussed in another place, but I tell the Department to keep out. It is not a secret garden. It is a very public garden. I do not think the Department or any Government should be the gardener in this garden. It is much too important and far too fundamental to the life of the whole country for any parts of central Government, for example, to come in on a continental style. I know that in the past the Department was sensitive about these matters and that the Schools Council was set up. I do not want to debate that. That was a mixed experiment with mixed results, as those in the House know full well. I hope that the sensitivity will remain but that the machinery will be updated. Perhaps that is a matter that the Central Advisory Councils should consider.

I am sure that my hon. Friends will press for reactivation because of their concern for Parliament. It may be said that the 1944 Education Act has resulted in Parliament having had no report for eight years of the activities of the councils. No assessment has been made and no references have been made. For the councils to have been in abeyance in that manner is symptomatic of the great deal that was wrong with the Department. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider these matters. I hope to hear something of encouragement from him tonight.

12.4 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has been a notable champion of the Central Advisory Councils. He chose them as the subject of an Adjournment debate in October 1971, in which he outlined the history of the councils and berated the then Government and their predecessors for not having reappointed them. He now draws the attention of the House to the fact that another five years has passed during which Governments of both parties have failed to bring the councils to life.

I think it will be agreed that this is not a party political matter. The question is why, for so long a period, Governments of both parties have apparently neglected the councils. To answer that question I think we need to look briefly at the history of the councils. They were established under Section 4 of the 1944 Education Act to replace the former consultative committee which, since 1899, had advised the Board of Education on specific matters referred to it by the board. Some replacement of that committee would have been necessary anyway as there was little or nothing else by way of advisory machinery.

The very considerable changes brought in by the 1944 Act made it inevitable however that there would be in succeeding years a ferment of ideas, and something more flexible than the old committee was needed. The councils were, therefore, set up—one for England and one for Wales—with the ability to turn, in the absence of a remit from Ministers, to other topics which they themselves saw as important and in need of inquiry.

My hon. Friend said that successive Ministers have flouted the 1944 Act in this regard. I do not think that is a very apt choice of words. I do not think successive Secretaries of State have operated with the intention of flouting an Act of Parliament. Rather they have tried to adapt the provisions of that Act of Parliament to the current needs of the particular time when they were Secretary of State.

The developing education service, however, began to demonstrate a need for official bodies specialising in particular areas. The National Advisory Council on Education for Industry and Commerce was early in the field in 1948. More recently we have the Schools Council and the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Training of Teachers. On more specific matters ad hoc bodies were more convenient and the House will be familiar with such names as the Albemarle Report, the Robbins Report, the Russell Report, the James Report and, no doubt, we shall, I hope, soon have the Taylor Report on the management of schools. These developments reduced the scope and need for the Advisory Councils to set off on inquiries of their own and they became, therefore, the repository of major Government inquiries where their standing, membership and methods of working were particularly appropriate. The result was a number of reports of great importance—Crowther, Plowden, Newsom, and, in Wales, Gittins are household words to this day and the reports contributed greatly to informed discussions about education and had substantial effects on the education services.

One has to see the Central Advisory Councils not against the background of 1944, when they were first set up, but against the position we see today. No Government are short these days of advice, opinion and comment from a large number of educational interest groups and from the Press, including the specialist education Press, and they have available not only standing bodies but can readily set up ad hoc bodies to look into particular matters.

I hope the House will accept, therefore, that Governments have not failed to revive the Councils because of any perverse animosity towards them or any desire to flout an Act of Parliament, but because it simply would not do to bring together a group of people, especially with all the formality and publicity which surrounds these prestigious councils, unless there were a subject of inquiry calling for the kind of examination which only the councils can conduct. It is, of course, ten years since they stood down, and it might seem surprising that in that period there have not been matters of sufficient weight to justify appointing the councils. On reflection, however, I think Members might agree that 10 years is not a long period in educational development where fundamental changes are necessarily, and rightly, measured. The succession of major inquiries following the 1944 Act was what one might have expected. It may be that at some future time it will be felt that once more there should be a series of fundamental reviews of educational provision. Indeed, my hon. Friend has outlined four—I counted six—different areas which he would like to see examined.

As to the power that the councils have to make inquiries of their own, in their early days they considered certain matters on their own initiative but not thereafter and I hope I have shown the House that with the development of other methods of inquiry there would be little a revived council could do in this way. The plain fact is that over 30 years have passed since the councils were first established, and those 30 years have seen enormous changes in the whole of our national life, not only in education. It is not, therefore, surprising that the role foreseen for the councils by the drafters of the 1944 Act does not entirely match the circumstances of today.

I understand the feelings of my hon. Friend, who sees value in the need, expressed in Section 5 of the Act, for reports of the activities of the councils to be presented to Parliament, but this provision has value only if the councils are able to report in a useful way. Were the Government to find a major subject to remit to the councils, their activities would, of course, be reported to Parliament under Section 5. However, this is not the only means available to the House for raising education matters. Education Ministers have their share of Questions, and debates on education matters are not unknown. We are engaged in one at the moment.

All this said, however, the gravamen of my hon. Friend's argument is not that Governments have simply failed to appoint the councils, and in doing so have failed to give Parliament an opportunity to receive councils' reports, but that successive Secretaries of State have been in breach of the law. The Expenditure Committee drew attention to this in its Tenth Report on policy-making in the Department of Education and Science and said that it may be that there are arguments against the continuation of the councils, in which case a change of law ought to be sought. My hon. Friend thinks that the councils should be revived, and not discontinued by subsequent legislation. I have tried to outline the reasons for which successive Secretaries of State have not revived the councils, and those reasons have been practical.

Mr. Spearing

Apart from Parliament, the Central Advisory Council was the only body which could require a response from the Minister, and therefore it is not for the Minister to say that it should not exist.

Mr. Oakes

Again my hon. Friend is coming to an argument raised in the Expenditure Committee's Report. He has anticipated my difficulty tonight in trying to give him a reply in anticipation of the full and proper reply which should be given to the Select Committee. What I can say is that the Government will consider the future of the councils in the light of the law as it stands, of their effectiveness in the present circumstances, of what was said in the Expenditure Committee's Report, and, of course, of what has been said in the House tonight. They will deal with the whole of these questions in their reply to the Expenditure Committee's Report and we expect to get the reply out quickly—before the end of the year, we hope.

In view of what I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me for not trying to anticipate what my right hon. Friend will be doing in a few weeks' time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.