HC Deb 12 July 1977 vol 935 cc389-400

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

12.6 a.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

According to The House Magazine, this Adjournment debate is due to be initiated by "Mrs. K. McNamara". Although my wife agrees with the sentiments that I shall be expressing, any virtues in my speech are due to her and any vices are my fault, this being one of the few occasions when I have not rehearsed my speech in my wife's presence before directing it at the House.

I wish to bring before the House the problem of the reorganisation of senior education in Hull, more especially in my constituency. I say that because what has happened with the reorganisation of senior education in Hull has affected my constituency more adversely than the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson). But that does not mean that they will not be badly affected.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be replying to the debate. When she was in Hull recently, she met a delegation of teachers from the city who expressed their concern about the problem.

It will help the House if I give the background to the situation by describing the system which is now under attack in the city. When the former city and county borough of Kingston upon Hull decided to go comprehensive, after long discussions with representatives of the teachers' unions, it decided upon a three-tier system—primary, junior 9 to 13-yearolds, and senior high at 13-plus. The allocation of places in the senior high schools was to be on a system of balanced intake, of roughly the same proportions of ability—groups A to E—in each school.

It is true that this system necessitated a degree of selection, but it had a number of advantages. There was parity of esteem between the schools and, more important, there was parity of resources. There was optimum use of teachers and of staff. There was optimum use of buildings. It made allowance for the distribution of houses, as most of the schools tended to be on the outskirts of the city in predominantly middle-class areas. It introduced a degree of social blending. It was readily understood by parents and, at the same time, it gave the maximum degree of parental choice.

The system was introduced by the then Conservative-controlled Hull Education Committee in 1969, but it was defended and accepted by all political parties as giving a balanced intake to our comprehensive schools and wide parental choice.

The system was generally accepted and in 1976, according to figures quoted in a debate in the Hull City Council, in terms of parental choice, 85 per cent, had their first choice, 6 per cent. had their second choice, 4 per cent. had their third choice, 0-5 per cent had their fourth choice and the remainder had no choice.

That was a balanced intake, and in my constituency, using an ability range of A to E in the five comprehensive schools—apart from the Catholic comprehensive schools—the range was as follows: A pupils, 10.4 to 8.9 per cent.; B pupils, 18.8 to 16.9 per cent.; C pupils, 42.5 to 38.8 per cent.; D pupils, 21.7 to 19.4 per cent.; and E pupils, 6.7 to 11.4 per cent.

That meant that there was a balanced intake. Every child had an equal opportunity to study a wide range of subjects to the highest level. Each school had a fair share of pupils of all abilities, so that all the children could have the right kind of teaching and a wide choice of subjects.

Last year, 250 parents objected to the first allocation. They were interviewed by a panel which included teacher representatives, and it was shown that there was real parity of opportunity in all the schools. The overwhelming number of parents in the city were satisfied about the allocations which had been made. As an hon. Member—and we are often the recipients of disgruntled parents—I cannot recall any constituents objecting to or holding out against the allocations.

Again, this year parents made their choices early in the year, and 87 per cent. of them got their first choice. The allocations in the schools in my constituency were: A pupils, 7.9 to 6.1 per cent.; B pupils, 16.9 to 15.4 per cent.; C pupils, 37.9 to 35 per cent.; D pupils, 21.9 to 24.6 per cent.; and E pupils, 15.0 to 17.8 per cent. Again, there was a balanced intake.

That was the disposition when we had a Labour-controlled authority. Then came the May elections, and the Tories won control of Humberside County Council. One of the main points in their campaign was to give greater parental choice in the schools to which children in Hull were allocated. It is ironic to note that in the rest of the Humberside County Council area there was no change because parental choice was virtually non-existent. However, there was to be an increase in choice in Hull. In a year which was bad for Labour in local elections—indeed, even the most partisan supporter would find it hard to gain a degree of comfort in the local election results throughout the country—in Hull the Labour Party had a considerable majority in terms both of seats won and votes cast.

It is, therefore, safe to argue that the electorate, constituents and parents involved were content with the Labour-controlled city council and reasonably content with the system of balanced intake, even though it involved a method of selection. That method was acceptable to parents and it was proved acceptable to the Secretary of State and her Department at the time the recent Act was passed.

Nevertheless, the new Tory committee immediately decided that it would scrap the selection which had been made by the committee earlier in the year and allocate on the principle of parental choice, on the basis of family connection such as whether a child had a brother or sister at a school, and on the basis of the nearness of the school to the home.

That created an immediate furore among teachers and parents. It is best summed up in a letter which was sent to the Secretary of State by my constituency Labour Party. It said: Dear Mrs. Williams, The following resolution was passed unanimously at our General Management Committee meeting last night: ' This CLP deplores the undemocratic and unreasonably timed action of the ruling Conservative Group on Humberside County Council in ending the banding allocation system for Hull Senior High Schools. The late timing of this change means that the Senior High School staffs will be unable to make any arrangements for the induction of the 13 year old pupils to their schools. We call upon the Secretary of State for Education and Science to use her powers under the 1944 Education Act to prevent the change in Allocation System for this year. ' I should like to point out that our particular concern as expressed in this resolution was not with the rights and wrongs of the previously existing allocation system per se, but with the manner in which the matter has been dealt with by certain members of the County Council. My constituency party secretary was pointing out that the concern expressed in the resolution was not about the rights or wrongs of the previous allocation but about the manner in which the matter had been dealt with by certain members of the county council. She went on to say: We understand that the normal allocation procedure had been operating and had been completed, so that parents, pupils and schools could have been informed of allocations. There had unfortunately been some delay due to the Overtime Ban being operated by NALGO members. There then appears to have been an arbitrary decision made by some member of the County Council to sop information about allocations being sent out and an indication that such information will now not be forthcoming until mid-July. We understand that any alteration in the basis for allocation to Senior High Schools in Hull required a rescinding motion of the County Council but it fact the decision was made and acted upon before even the Schools Subcommittee had met. It seems to us that the delay in announcing allocations will raise serious difficulties for Senior High Schools in making preparations for the reception of their incoming pupils, and will also place unnecessary stress on the pupils themselves. Both of these being damaging to the education of the children. It is therefore in the interests of both educational needs and of democracy that we urge you to take action. The decision was taken without reference to any teachers. The letter was sent before the county had announced its changes, and the allocation figures reached me about 10 days ago. In the schools in my constituency, the allocations are as follows: A, from 2.8 per cent. to 13.3 per cent.; B, from 12.5 per cent. to 22.9 per cent.; C, from 34.7 per cent. to 40 per cent.; D, from 17.1 per cent. to 27.2 per cent.: and E, from 6.7 per cent. to 22.8 per cent.

Hull Grammar School has 36.2 per cent. of A and B pupils as against the previous 23.3 per cent, an increase of 12.9 per cent. Its number of D and E pupils has decreased by 5.8 per cent. to 23.8 per cent. The number of A and B pupils at Kelvin High School has increased from 23.7 per cent. to 25 per cent. and its D and E pupils total 40.1 per cent., a decrease of 0.7 per cent. The new dispositions give Newland High School 30 per cent. of A and B pupils compared with the previous 22.7 per cent. Its D and E pupils have decreased by 7.1 per cent. to 30.4 per cent. Sir Henry Cooper's will have 20.2 per cent. A and B pupils, a decrease of 4.1 per cent., and 42.9 per cent. D and E pupils. an increase of 4.8 per cent. At Sir Leo Schultz High School the number of A and B pupils is to be reduced by 8.5 per cent. to 14.5 per cent.. while the number of D and E pupils is to increase by 8.6 per cent. to 50 per cent.—half the school.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull. East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a parent who sends his children to Sir Henry Cooper's and who was one of the 5 per cent. who were denied first choice, I am prepared to accept the principle of balanced intake but that, like many parents, I greatly resent this sort of Tory apartheid in education which will mean that some schools will be the dustbins of education while others become centres of excellence?

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the fraud on parents.

The figures become even more gross. Hull Grammar School, Kelvin High School and Newlands High School have intakes of only 240. The intakes of Sir Henry Cooper's and the Sir Leo Schultz Schools are 420 and 360 respectively. This means that, although the schools can probably cope this year, almost half the pupils in one school will have reading and writing difficulties. The Sir Leo Schultz School will have an intake in which 84.7 per cent. of pupils will be at the average level or below.

The problem will not be so great in other schools, but there will be difficulty in finding teachers for the clever children. Hull Grammar School has 76.2 per cent. of its pupils in the average or higher bands. At Newlands High School the figure is 69.6 per cent., at Kelvin High School it is 60 per cent., at Sir Henry Cooper's it is 57.1 per cent. and at the Sir Leo Schultz it is 50.1 per cent. What is emerging is a system with two intellectual elitist single-sex schools and one average comprehensive school.

What has happened to the parental choice that the Tories promised? Only 2 per cent. more have what they wanted. In view, however, of the public expenditure cuts infgeducation, will these new schools get bright teachers or remedial teachers? What will happen to the staffing allocation? The effect on the new schools will be severe as they take upon themselves the new role. All this will happen without consultation.

I come now to objections. Already this year I understand that there will be as many objections as last year, and probably these will snowball. The objections are to be heard by three elected councillors and officers and not by any practising teacher. So much for expert advice and guidance for the parents.

Already the fraud has been perpetrated on the parents of Hull. They made their choice of schools under one system expecting a balanced intake. The system has been changed without the parents having the chance to reconsider. The system can probably cope this year. We have devoted teachers who will do their best for their pupils, but what of next year? There will be a snowballing effect.

Parents will plump for any schools where they think that their children will have the best chance, and no one can deny a parent that right. But, because of the distorted intake which began this year and will continue next year, there will be, as Mr. Warwick Wiggen, an NUT national executive member for Humberside, has said, a collection of elite schools which will quickly become oversubscribed, a larger band of "beheaded" comprehensive schools without elite pupils, and a small collection of ghetto deprived schools. That is not what our education policy or this party is all about.

Tonight we want to hear from the Minister an understanding of our fears and a promise to intervene as far as is legally possible to prevent this Tory dogmatic and doctrinaire ruination of our system.

Our system is not perfect—no education system can be—but it at least had the merit of being locally devised and created by the teachers, parents and the local authority as it then was. It was aimed at giving children the best possible start in life.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Time is short and I promise the Minister that I shall be brief. I believe that the teachers, parents and pupils in Hull have here a cast-iron case. The Minister came to a seminar on this banding system in my constituency some months ago. She confirmed that it was perfectly legal under the 1976 Act.

In Hull we were free of sub-standard schools. We wished to avoid neighbourhood schools, but under this system now we can easily end up with what are sometimes called ghetto schools, schools of low intellectual quality in a socially deprived area. In the same way, a school of high intellectual quality would tend to be in the outskirts of the city.

There are no examinations, but there are internal tests in the schools. There is also allocation of pupils. I have come across no complaints except in the case of a Sheffield family which was used to coeducational schools. The parents could not find one in West Hull since we are short of them. Therefore, in the case of twin children, the boy had to go to a boys' school and the girl to a girls' school.

On the whole I believe that pupils, teachers and parents were satisfied with the banding system. But along came the Tory council with the intention, if it is in power long enough, to wipe the system out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) mentioned the Sir Leo Schultz School. Sir Leo told me this evening that five-sixths of the students there are now down in bottom grades. I believe that there are A, B, C, D and E divisions. Standards will be slashed if the Conservatives are allowed to stay long enough.

What can the Minister do about this? I suggest that there is little that she can do now. The only thing that will put a stop to this practice in future is an alteration in the status of Hull. If it regains its status, as Plymouth, Leicester, Stoke and other places have done, if Ministers at the Department of Environment get on with the reform of local government which has been promised at meetings with the local government authorities and if Hull becomes an all-purpose authority, we shall have our own schools back again and we shall be able to change the tide which treatens to overwhelm us.

Tomorrow at the county council meeting we shall see the Labour opposition voted down by the numbers lined against it. That is the present sad and sorry position. The teachers are appalled by the situation and the parents are disgusted. The Labour opposition feels quite helpless. However, given a change in the status of our city we can get back again to the position that we were in before the Conservative Party came into power in the county council.

12.27 a.m.

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

I share the desire of my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston-upon-Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara), Kingston upon-Hull East (Mr. Prestcott) and Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) that all children should receive a truly comprehensive secondary education in schools which enjoy parity of esteem in a locality.

My hon. Friends have referred to the system of banding which exists in Hull and was introduced by the former county borough council as long ago as 1969, it being retained by the new Humberside authority when it became responsible for education in Hull following the reorganisation of local government in 1974. As my hon. Friends are aware, we in the Government had some reservations about the system, which we made clear in Committee during the passage of what is now the Education Act 1976, as banding is a form of selection. In common with other forms of selection, it can be unreliable. It can lead to a variety of undesirable social effects. The unreliability comes from the fact that it depends upon tests of ability which are themselves unreliable.

One of the undesirable effects is that children come into a secondary school from a large number of feeder schools, with resulting problems of continuity facing the teachers in a secondary school. As they come from a variety of schools they also tend to come considerable distances so that the target allocation for any given school may be achieved. However, strong representations were made—

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that bussing will probably increase as a result of what has happened, and that the number of feeder schools will also increase?

Miss Jackson

Yes, I accept my hon. Friend's point fully. I shall return to it.

These are problems that are to some extent intrinsic in any form of banding. They were the reasons for my Department having some reservations about the existence of such a system. However, strong representations were made by a number of authorities, of which Hull was one. They said that due to special circumstances in their areas they wished to retain banding for the time being. In the Education Bill there was an explicit provision which allowed banding systems in order to secure an even distribution between schools of children of varying ability and aptitude, it being recognised that a balance of advantage existed between some of the intrinsic problems in having a banding system and the creation of school which contained a balanced distribution of ability.

Although the 1976 Act envisaged at some future date the end of banding systems, it did not outlaw them. It specifically envisaged their continuation for the time being. It envisaged thereby their phasing out, not the abrupt cessation of systems of banding which then existed in Hull and many other areas.

Against that background, I turn to the changes in the allocation procedures that have taken place in Hull this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central said that the authority claimed that the changes were made to give more weight to parental choice. 1 understand that in Hull it is usual for about 85 per cent. of pupils to get their first choice of school and that this percentage increases when the appeals stage is reached under the old banding system

The result of the changed procedure this year, if my hon. Friend is right, seems to be that, while marginally about 2 per cent. more parents than would otherwise have been the case, leaving aside the appeals procedure, have been granted their first choice of school, that has been achieved by allowing considerable distortion of the proper distribution of ability intakes in some schools. Apparently the intake in some schools—in fact, overall in all schools, although the effects are more difficult in some than in others —will be less well balanced than it would have been under the old procedure. I must make it clear to my hon. Friends that I very much regret that. I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central may be correct in arguing that his constituency is the worst affected by the procedure, but certainly all the constituencies will be affected by this change in procedure.

I have discussed the matter with teachers in Hull and was much impressed by the arguments they put to me about the difficulties they see with an intake for which the schools, as they see it, are not equipped or staffed to cope with.

In effect, if my hon. Friend's arguments are correct, it is possible to argue that the authority, while maintaining the more difficult aspects of banding, has sacrificed the only advantage that led us to preserve it—namely, the maintenance of a balanced intake within the schools—to obtain a marginal increase in parental choice of about 2 per cent. which might in any case have been given by the use of the appeals procedure as it existed under the original allocation system. It would certainly be most unfortunate if the changes introduced in Hull were to result in a continuation of these problems while not achieving the very thing that banding is meant to ensure—namely, a balanced school roll.

I fully appreciate that teachers in secondary schools in Hull in particular are eager—and they are right to be concerned—that the comprehensive principles should be upheld. Certainly my right hon. Friend will not waiver in her determination to achieve fully comprehensive education in every secondary school. The 1976 Education Act empowers my right hon. Friend to compel authorities to abandon selective secondary education. Any use of banding procedures as a means of a return to selective education—I trust that the Humberside Education Authority will resist any such temptation—will be watched most carefully, and it will be our intention to deal with the matter firmly.

I can only say that we are keeping a close eye on the situation in Hull. We are concerned at the tendency that we see developing there. We shall monitor the situation and write to the authority and to my hon. Friend if it seems to develop in the direction that he suggested.

Mr. James Johnson

Is my hon. Friend saying that nothing can be done at the moment? Has the Department no power whatever to intervene?

Miss Jackson

I have not specifically said that. I have said that we are aware of the anxieties voiced by three of my hon. Friends tonight. We, too, are concerned that the change in allocation procedures should not defeat the purpose of having a banding system. We shall attempt to monitor the changes that are taking place to see whether there is any necessity as well as any grounds for any possible future intervention.

Mr. McNamara

Has my hon. Friend paid attention to my argument about the tremendous changes at the Hull Grammar School and the Sir Leo Schultz High School? Is she making a more conscious effort to ask the local authority what it is doing in this area of Hull where choice exists? This is the only area where parental choice now exists. Is my hon. Friend asking the local authority what it is doing to prevent the creation of ghetto schools and of new elitist, single-sex schools?

Miss Jackson

We are aware of that problem. We are concerned to see whether what my hon. Friend describes will take place. If that is the effect, we shall be in touch—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes to One o'clock.