HC Deb 14 March 1978 vol 946 cc198-200
3. Mr. John Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she is satisfied with the rate of progress towards a fully comprehensive system of education.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

Four out of every five secondary pupils are now in comprehensive schools. I shall not be satisfied until all authorities have offered their children the benefit of a comprehensive education.

Mr. Evans

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's reply. Does she agree that the latest populist Tory Party proposals to allow children to leave school at the age of 15 is simply another example of that party's determination to undermine the very principles of comprehensive education? Will she, therefore, take a very hard line with reactionary local authorities which are still dragging their feet on reorganisation?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend is more clear about Conservative policy than I am. I am not quite clear about it, but it appears to be the case that the Conservative Party—at least, part of it—supports the idea of comprehensive education followed by the creaming-off of the most academic children into direct grant schools, which I regard as a wholly destructive formula. Other parts of the Conservative Party appear to agree that the less education the better.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

When the Secretary of State talked about being satisfied when all parents are offered comprehensive education, did she mean that or did she mean that she insists that they must all take it?

Mrs. Williams

Will the hon. Gentleman mind repeating his question? I missed the nuances of the middle part.

Mr. Bottomley

The Secretary of State said in her first reply that she would not be satisfied until all parents were offered comprehensive places. Is that what she meant, or was it a disguise for saying that all parents would be forced to take comprehensive schools?

Mrs. Williams

I thought that the hon. Gentleman's nuances were of a kind that would be hard to hear. I want all local authorities to organise on comprehensive lines. I am convinced that within a comprehensive system parental preferences can certainly be taken into account.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that despite the fulminations of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), who, I think, will go lower than 15 eventually, comprehensive education, according to the latest report of the NFER, is going from strength to strength and proving better than any form of education that we have ever had? Does she, therefore, agree that the sooner we have all our children in there receiving a comprehensive education, the better for them and for us?

Mrs. Williams

I believe that at one time the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) believed that 14 was the right age at which to leave school.— [HON. MEMBERS: "Thirteen."] I did not know about 13. I welcome the prodigal son's return to 15. Perhaps he will get to 16 before long.

On the second part of the question, I say loud and clear that the evidence is growing week by week that where the comprehensive system has had an opportunity to settle down after the process of change, as the evidence shows in Leicestershire and West Sussex, to take the two most recent surveys, the comprehensive schools do at least as well as and in many cases better than the old selective system.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Secretary of State agree with Mrs. Caroline Benn that the Education Act 1976 has failed? Does she agree that she has no powers to impose any particular form of comprehensive reorganisation, and that if she wishes to pursue these foolish and dictatorial policies she had better get herself a new Act of Parliament?

Mrs. Williams

The Labour Party believes in carrying out the law as approved by Parliament. The law as approved by Parliament could not be more clear. Conservative Members might consider the wisdom of advising local education authorities not to carry out the law in spirit, although they may do so to the letter. That is not so uncommon.

I have carefully read the remarks of Mrs. Caroline Benn. They are not as presented in the Press. In saying, quite correctly, that we cannot substitute the Department of Education's proposals for those of local education authorities, she was simply explaining what the Act of Parliament itself says.

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