HC Deb 19 April 1977 vol 930 cc9-13
7. Mr. Channon

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what further proposals she has for improving the standard of secondary education, in the light of her recent conferences.

9. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she is satisfied with the results of the regional conferences; and if she will make a statement.

15. Dr. Hampson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement in the light of the series of regional educational conferences.

20. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is to be the next stage of the great debate on education.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

The regional conferences stimulated a great deal of interesting and thoughtful comment. I am now discussing the questions that emerged from them with those organisations whom I met last November and December. Following this, the Government's proposals will be set out in a Green Paper, which will be published during the summer.

Mr. Channon

Does the Secretary of State agree that, welcome as her conferences are, it is essential that parents, who are most intimately concerned, should have more say at those conferences? Will the right hon. Lady take steps to ensure that parents' views are expressed to her even more vigorously? Furthermore, does it not show that one of the most crucial aspects is that where there is an area in which parents in general are satisfied that a school is a good one, it should not be destroyed merely for the sake of experiment?

Mrs. Williams

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point is that this was the first attempt ever made by the Department of Education and Science to involve parents. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that where there are effectively no organisations representing more than a small minority of parents it is difficult to set up a structure for the representation of parents.

The answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that we take into account very carefully the objections of any group of parents to a Section 13 notice. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that there may be differences in parental opinion in a certain area, especially, for example, about comprehensive reorganisation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall follow the usual custom, when several Questions are answered together, of calling first those whose Questions are being answered. Mr. Tom Arnold.

Mr. Arnold

What steps has the Secretary of State managed to take to allay fears that these conferences were largely cosmetic?

Mrs. Williams

I can only say that, regrettably, although we issued an invitation to the Conservative Parliamentary Party we did not have any of its representatives present at the conferences.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is not true.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Yes, we did. We invited the Chairman of the Parliamentary Education Committee to nominate those who wanted to represent him at the conferences, and nobody came. I know that this was put in hand, so we can dispute it later. I will give the hon. Gentleman a chance to dispute this, but I am saying in all good faith that such an invitation was issued and I am sorry if, perhaps, it went to the wrong quarter. I made it quite clear that the invitation was to the Chairman of the Education Committee of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, not the Shadow spokesman.

I simply say to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) that 1,471 people were present at the conferences. It is vital to point out that invitations were issued, not to those nominated by the DES, with the exception of a small handful of experts, but to those nominated by all the organisations that approached us, including parent organisations, the CBI and the TUC. Therefore, if the conferences were cosmetic it was the decision of the many organisations that we approached to make them so. I do not believe for one moment that the criticism is justified.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Lady agree that part of her consideration arising out of the regional conferences ought to be whether it is right that the Department of Education should have quite a different rôle from that which it has had hitherto? It is adopting a fairly aggressive posture in putting forward policies of its own, which may be a good thing, but should not this be considered as an important factor in the way that we deal with the education in this country?

Mrs. Williams

I think that the hon. gentleman has a fair point, but the whole purpose of having a Green Paper—which I very much hope there will be an opportunity to debate in the House before it moves forward to becoming definite regulations or, certainly, before there is any change in legislation—is to enable all parties including, primarily, the House, to give their opinions about what the proper rôle of the Department of Education and Science ought to be in future.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I tell the right hon. Lady that I forgive her for her inaccuracy, because she has been misled by the erroneous statement made by the Under-Secretary during the last Question Time on education? Will she accept that I was pleased to receive from her an invitation to appoint representatives of the Conservative Party to attend the conferences, that I wrote to her and accepted that invitation, that I appointed representatives to attend every conference, and that all of them attended and made a contribution to the proceedings? Therefore, will the right hon. Lady withdraw what she has said?

Mrs. Williams

In view of what the hon. Gentleman said, of course I will. However, having myself chaired two of the conferences, I can say that the Opposition were singularly both invisible and inaudible, because no Member of Parliament spoke at either of them.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May we have this point clear? The invitation was to representatives of the party, and we were represented by councillors, educationists and others who were specifically appointed as members of the Conservative Party. That was the invitation. It was not an invitation to appoint members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Mrs. Williams

In that case, let me say straight away that there has been a perfectly genuine misunderstanding between us. We had assumed that the invitation was to the Conservative Parliamentary Party since many councillors attended in their rôle of local authority representatives. I repeat my regret that there were no Members of Parliament present at the conferences.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Was it not one of the most encouraging features of the great debate that Opposition Front Bench spokesmen were both invisible and inaudible?

Sir John Hall

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the good suggestions that emanated from the conferences was that centres of educational excellence should be established where intensive training could be given on Saturdays? If she believes that that is a good suggestion, will she do nothing to destroy the existing excellent centres of educational excellence in my constituency, which are known as grammar and high schools?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Gentleman is clever enough to know the distinction. The point that was made in the regional conferences about centres for additional tuition on Saturdays was, as I recall, directed particularly towards those who required remedial and additional teaching. As a Department, we have strongly supported the idea of additional periods in which schools might be open for community uses, for homework, and so on. With respect, that is a separate question from the question whether selective education is the best system. I do not believe that it is.