HC Deb 13 February 1979 vol 962 cc958-63

Mr. Carlisle (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what advice her Department is giving to local education authorities to safeguard the position of children taking O and A-level and CSE examinations from disruption of their education as a result of industrial action.

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

About 1,200 schools in England are closed. That is 4.6 per cent. of the total number. Two-thirds are in the areas of seven local education authorties in Greater London and the North-East. My aim is to get normal education restored for all children as soon as possible, but those taking public examinations this year deserve priority. At the outset of the present dispute, following representations from me, the public sector unions agreed together to give guidance to their members under which they would give 48 hours' notice of any industrial action, use their good offices to call off unauthorised local action of which notice had not been given and refrain from any action that would impede the conduct of public examinations. I asked them to extend similar protection to all teaching examination classes, but they were unwilling to do so. Nevertheless, most of the authorities badly affected are managing to provide some teaching for examination clases, often in schools or on restricted timetables, in makeshift accommodation or by setting and marking homework.

My Department is in regular touch with all the local education authorities affected, which have been asked to supply details of any breaches of this guidance. Any reports of breaches are taken up immediately, locally or, if necessary, nationally with the trade unions concerned.

Yesterday, I held a meeting with chairmen and the chief education officers of the 12 authorities that had been hardest hit or threatened. I asked them to make every effort to keep schools open and where this proved impossible to take immediate steps to mitigate the consequences of the closure of schools on children's education, especially that of young people in their examination years. They told me at first hand about the situation in their areas and the steps that they were taking to deal with it. I promised that if necessary I would call them together again to discuss further action.

Mr. Carlisle

The right hon. Lady will be aware of the very grave concern being expressed by many parents about their children's examinations and the concern that was clearly expressed by one of the leading teaching unions over the weekend. Will she accept that my hon. Friends and I believe that action aimed at affecting children in the run-up period to public examinations—failure at which, or the inability to do as well as might otherwise be the case, may mean that those children will suffer for the rest of their lives—is on any basis totally unacceptable?

As the right hon. Lady has responsibility to see that local education authorities effectively carry out their duty of providing proper education, does she agree that it is not sufficient merely to say that she has had talks with the unions and the leaders of local education authority bodies but that she should issue today a circular to all local education authorities reminding them of their duty to ensure that education is provided and advising them that if those who normally open schools are on strike and are not opening them, other arrangements for their opening must be made?

Mrs. Williams

It is as effective to see the authorities concerned as it is to send them circulars, and it also enables them to put to me the precise position in their own areas. That has been done. I explored yesterday, with the authorities seriously affected, what steps they can take to open their schools, but the hon. and learned Gentleman must appreciate that that depends on what co-operation will be extended to them locally by teachers and head teachers. The advice of the National Association of Head Teachers to its members was that they should not undertake work normally undertaken by members of other unions, which would include the normal opening of schools by caretakers. I have pointed out to all authorities that they have a legal right to seek access to their schools, but it is crucial to make sure that teaching will take place if the schools are reopened.

If circumstances in any authority were to justify a direction under section 68, which would, I am advised, be more appropriate than section 99, I would not hesitate to make such a direction. However, I should draw attention to the fact that since the Tameside judgment it requires a very stringent test to establish that unreasonable action is being undertaken by a local authority.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that all of us on the Government side share her anxiety to do whatever is possible to secure a return to school for all those youngsters throughout the country who are suffering as a result of the dispute? Is she aware that we particularly recognise that, because in most London authorities the half-term break occurs next week, most of our children will then have been out for five weeks? Because of that, will she pay tribute to those teachers and head teachers who have made provision for tutorials and examination classes in other than school premises for the effort that they are making to encourage our children to succeed?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way of ending this dispute must be to come to a satisfactory agreement with the unions concerned? This would achieve the opening of all schools throughout the country. Therefore—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question is almost as long as the original answer, but I shall let the hon. Member conclude.

Mr. Atkinson

The question is in direct ratio to the importance of this matter. Instead of my right hon. Friend telling one story in those places where these matters are discussed, thereby preventing a settlement of the dispute, would she encourage her Cabinet colleagues to conclude a satisfactory agreement?

Mrs. Williams

My Cabinet colleagues and I are anxious that there should be a satisfactory agreement, but that is not the same thing as meeting any claim that may be made. We must consider the effects of inflation on the nation as a whole. Having said that, I pay tribute to those teachers and head teachers who are dealing with very difficult conditions. But it would be dishonest of me to pretend that studying for examinations in church halls is any substitute for studying for examinations in school. I appreciate the efforts that have been made, particularly by one of the public service unions in the North-East, to enable schools to be reopened for young people in their examination years. I would like the same attitude to be taken in London, where three boroughs have so far been unable to get children in their examination years back into school.

Finally, I hope that my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members will use their influence to encourage the upholding of agreements made both nationally and locally, and whenever possible to encourage the mitigation of closures where they cannot be offset.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call two hon. Members from each side. I remind hon. Members that we have another private notice question and an application under Standing Order No. 9.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Surely the phrase "impossible to open a school" is one that the Secretary of State has no right to use. Are we not discussing access to public property? Is it not wholly improper and unconstitutional for those who have the responsibility of maintaining access to public property to negotiate with those who have no right to deny that access?

Mrs. Williams

The hon. Member has understandably misunderstood my answer. In the case of at least three authorities every effort has been made to reopen the schools, but the authorities in Gateshead, Barking and Newham have found that they have not sufficient co-operation to turn the schools back into teaching institutions. I am satisfied that these authorities have taken extensive steps to try to reopen the schools. It is my job to discover whether that is so. In the case of the majority of the authorities affected by closures—Newcastle, North Tyneside, Sunderland and Durham—the examination year children are entering school and taking regular instruction. I am grateful to those authorities for their efforts to bring this about.

Mr. Flannery

As one who has taught in the past, I am very sad about the present situation and would like children to take their examinations. Many of us warned repeatedly from public platforms for months before this occurred that it would happen. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of those taking action are low-paid people caught in the poverty trap, and that the only way to ensure that the children take their examinations is to see that these people are made a special case and are given a decent standard of living? That will get them back to work, and that will enable the children to take their examinations.

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend is a member of the teaching profession. I am grateful to the three teaching organisations for making it clear that their members should cross picket lines to teach children. It is important to put that on the record in this House. The Government have already made it clear that there is a substantial element of underpinning for the low paid, which covers all those people earning less than £70 a week. I do wish that my hon. Friends and the House generally would recognise that an attempt is being made to help the low paid in the public services.

Mr. Beith

What did the chairman of the Haringey education authority say about the fact that his authority is virtually on strike against its statutory responsibilities? Did the Secretary of State consider testing out those statutory responsibilities in that case'?

Mrs. Williams

I have seen members of the Haringey authority on one occasion on their own and on one occasion together with other authority members. While I believe that it was unwise of them earlier to associate themselves with the claim being made by the public service unions, I am satisfied that there is no question that the schools have been closed for that reason. Haringey has made efforts to try to reopen the schools, and I have further urged this.

Mr. Pavitt

Will my right hon. Friend seek to avoid the tremendously emotional build-up that tends to present these problems in terms of victory and defeat, like some kind of huge game? Will she be prepared to show flexibility and common sense in reaching a settlement at an early opportunity? At the same time, will she take urgent and immediate action on the dispute that is building up on the teachers' front?

Mrs. Williams

I recognise the wisdom of what my hon. Friend says. In his authority area of Brent the caretakers returned to work yesterday, and now all the schools are open. That followed some very careful contact between the local authority and the unions concerned.

On the second question, I have every reason to believe that the teachers will act responsibly over their own pay claim. I am sure that they would not wish to impose further industrial action upon children who have already suffered so much disruption this year.


Mr. Speaker

Earlier this afternoon, during the private notice question to the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science, I made a mistake. I want to tell the House of that mistake, because I always try to be fair to hon. Members where matters affect their constituency interests. During the exchanges there were several references to Haringey. I called one hon. Gentleman from that area, but I did not call the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). I want the hon. Gentleman and the House to know that if an hon. Member's constituency is referred to, as it was by two hon. Members in this instance, I usually call those hon. Members who represent the area concerned.

Mr. Rossi

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting that on the record. This is a matter of interest to my constituents.

As the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science has kindly remained in her place, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, on a point of order, whether it is in order for me to ask her, in the fourth week of the closure of schools, whether she is aware that the Haringey council is refusing willing teachers access to obtain papers—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked me to deal with a point of order. The answer is that unfortunately that would not be in order at this stage.