HC Deb 12 July 1979 vol 970 cc857-69


Mr. Kinnock

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 2, line 12 at end insert— '(1A) Nothing in this Act shall affect schemes in which admission of pupils is not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude and which are already approved under section 13, except that local education authorities, school managers or governors may elect that such schemes be treated as though they are proposals to which subsection (4) of section 1 of this Act applies.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take amendment No. 21, in page 2, line 12 at end insert— '(1A) Nothing in this Act shall affect schemes in which admission of pupils is not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude and which are already implemented under section 13 of the Education Act 1974.'.

Mr. Kinnock

The amendments have a connected purpose, but a separate emphasis. Amendment No. 18 relates to schemes that have been approved under section 13, but not implemented. We seek to ensure that such schemes—particularly one in which we have a special interest—are proposals to which the right of election will be extended. The amendment is a test of the Government's professed attitude on comprehensive schooling.

There has been a comprehensive scheme in the Tameside education authority for four years. The scheme was accepted by the then Secretary of State for Education and Science in November 1975 and it has been one of the most illustrious cases fought in politics and through the courts that have affected our education system. Of course, the victims of all the vacillations and changes of policy have been the children of Tameside and their parents.

We are trying to ensure that the proposals that were acceptable under the section 13 procedure in 1975 will be upheld and that the Secretary of State will adopt his most enlightened attitude and permit the Tameside authority to make application before the new date of 31 December—arrived at through the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) and the generosity of the Government—for the scheme to go ahead.

I realise that the amendment may pose certain difficulties for the Government, not only because of their reservations about such matters, but because of the political associations of Tameside. It has been held that because the councillors opposed comprehensive reorganisation and made that a premier part of their election campaign, that was acceptable evidence that the opinion of the people of Tameside was contrary to non-selective education and progress towards comprehensive reorganisation. Consequently, that reorganisation did not go ahead. But politics and the political balance in Tameside have changed. The argument has changed. In the subsequent elections the Labour Party won a majority there and is now in control of the local education authority. 1.45 a.m.

No one could say that we secured that majority by stealth or without the understanding of the people that the major issue remained the reorganisation of education. The evidence is to be found not simply in the Labour Party's manifesto, declarations and statements by candidates in the local press and the material delivered to each house in Tameside. Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from the Conservative declarations in May: Vote Conservative. Tameside is better with the Conservatives ". [HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear.] It is apparent that the people of Tameside did not agree with those Conservative Members who cheer, because they kicked out the Tories. The declarations continued: Buy your own council house … Improve older property … £5 million is to be spent on planned maintenance … No comprehensive education … Better results … Smaller classes … Freedom of parental choice … Fair treatment for all abilities and so on. There was all the material of which we have come to hear so much from the Tories, but it did not convince the people of Tameside, because they ejected the Tories.

There is now a Labour majority in Tameside. If it can once be held that the people of Tameside signified their views on comprehensive reorganisation by electing a Tory majority that was against that reorganisation, all logic and justice suggest that by the same token, after a few years' more experience of comprehensive education, the people of Tameside have changed their minds. As the Prime Minister might say, there is a mandate for the adoption of the comprehensive proposals.

Now we hit a further difficulty. With great understanding, the Secretary of State wrote to the Tameside metropolitan borough on 30 May and generously told it: We understand that the education committee will be discussing this matter"— reorganisation— on 5th June, and the Secretary of State wishes to place on record his view of the situation, in the belief that this will be helpful to the authority in deciding what course to follow. That was done with complete propriety, and I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman's motives. Nobody can can quarrel with what was done.

However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman held that because of the time that had elapsed since the original acceptance of the proposals it could no longer be accepted that they were appropriate for the area. It is difficult to understand why he reached that decision. It could not have been on demographic grounds, because the children involved—whether they are now in the third or fourth year in the secondary schools or are in the primary schools—are the same. The only children not involved are those who have already left school and who would have been affected, directly or indirectly, by the 1975 proposals, had they been implemented as intended in 1976. Allowing for all the accidents of fate, we can see that the parents of those children are almost entirely the same. Therefore, there are no solid demographic grounds for suggesting that the picture has changed significantly.

Are there educational grounds? I do not want to repeat what was said earlier in the debate, but the fact is that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), who has taken a close interest in the affairs of Tameside, has demonstrated by reference to A-level and O-level results that the curriculum of the grammar schools is inordinately restricted in this age of advanced technology, fuel technology and industry—and this in, of all places, Manchester. There is a gross absence of choices at A-level in foreign languages such as Italian, Spanish and Russian.

There is not adequate provision in the present system for the diversity of curriculum demanded in the modern secondary school. It was not on educational grounds that the Secretary of State could maintain that the present scheme in Tameside was superior to that offered as a result of the 1975 proposals for re-organisation. The only reason was either the legalistic one of interpreting that there was some kind of outdatedness over a four-year period or a political one that hoped to perpetuate the decision of the now defunct Tory majority in Tameside. Whichever it was, it is unfair that the future of the children and the choice of the parents of Tameside should be affected.

The Minister brought out the comparison between Tameside and Manchester. On further examination of the results of Manchester and Tameside, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will discover that he made selective use of statistics.

Mr. Mark Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman referred to part of a letter I wrote to the Tameside authority. I set out in that letter the reason for my view, which he has not mentioned, that the approval given in it in the application of 1975 specifically related to the reorganisation of the schools and the date in September 1976. After that date was passed, the local education authority resolved not to go ahead with those proposals. That led me to my view that those proposals were now spent and the right attitude for the local authority to take, if it wished to reorganise, was to start new section 13 procedures.

Mr. Kinnock

I understand that. It is a most helpful intervention. Whether it was intended as such, I do not know. It must be the most perverse use of logic for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to say that because a Tory majority rejected a Labour scheme, the same force of political and democratic logic should not require that the new Labour majority in the metropolitan borough of Tameside should be able to take up the scheme that it last proposed in 1975 and was to have introduced in 1976.

We are still arguing, if we take the right hon. and learned Gentleman seriously, around a refined political point that an objective act of the Tory majority rejected the 1975 proposals. I will refresh his memory. After the elections of the spring of that year, in panic and in great haste and using all the force of the Acts at the disposal of a local authority with a Tory majority, carefully thought-out and tortuously prepared proposals for secondary reorganisation in Tameside were destroyed by July of that year. I would prefer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider that they were not so much destroyed as put into political cold storage.

The point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should consider is not whether a Tory majority has thrown out Labour proposals but whether the children and parents who would have been affected by these 1975–76 proposals are substantially the same children and parents. He knows that even allowing for normal demographic changes and normal geographical movements they are overwhelmingly and substantially the same parents and children.

I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will consider that further. If reasonability is the motivation for this decision and sending the letter of 30 May to Tameside, reason triumphs over his decision. That reason is that I appeal to the Secretary of State—it cannot fall on deaf ears, in view of his general approach to these matters—to consider the children and parents.

As for the comparative results of Tameside and Manchester, I asked the Under-Secretary not to be too selective in his statistics. The Tameside statistics were enormously fattened by the class sizes, and the number of entrants into examinations. In some examinations—Latin is a case in point, but there were others—there was one candidate. The result of his success was a 100 per cent. pass rate. [HON. MEMBERS: " Very good. I have a grammar school education to thank for that deduction.

Dr. Boyson

The figures that I quoted were not 100 per cent. or 5 per cent., which are dependent entirely on how many sit. The comparison, which was made by R. W. Baldwin, a statistician, was between the 16-plus and 18-plus population in Trafford and Manchester. It showed that the results in Tameside in schools of both types were much higher than those in Manchester. I will send copies of those results to any hon. Member who wants them. Then a debate might be worth while. The figures were for percentage passes of the whole age group.

Mr. Kinnock

I still think that there are substantial grounds for believing that there was a distorted weighting in the use of those statistics. It certainly does not meet two other important points. [Interruption.] I hope that there will be as much interest when we next discuss these matters more thoroughly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are your friends?"] Perhaps my hon. Friends regard the conclusion of this debate in a more relaxed way than do Tory Members. That accounts for their preoccupation with other House matters, and with their constituency mail, which is obviously what they are doing now.

The criteria employed in this exercise were not sufficiently objective. This illustrates a danger in the other proposals of the Under-Secretary—we have not determined whether they are the proposals of the Secretary of State—about the publication of league tables. However exact and objective the work of statisticians in producing league tables of academic results, there will be much tortuous debate—some well-informed, some ill-informed—which will go on ad nauseam, with no benefit to the children directly concerned.

This debate is of great benefit. It is exposing the fact that there has been and is nothing but political motivation in informing Tameside that it cannot go ahead with the 1975 scheme. This has serious implications, not just for Tameside but for the House and the Exchequer. What has happened there is a conse- quence of the 1975 proposals. This is the reason that the amendment asks for Tameside to be allowed the privilege of making an election. It has proposals which previously satisfied the Secretary of State and in the last Government would probably have satisfied the judgment and criteria of the Prime Minister when she was Secretary of State. She accepted similar schemes.

Hyde boys' grammar school has had girls' toilets installed for £160,000. I cast no reflection on the boys in the school, so I presume that they have not used those toilets. The girls' school has craft provision worth about £250,000 which is not being used. As a consequence of the 1975 proposals, teachers were regraded by contract. Of course, those proposals were smashed up by the Tories in Tameside in 1976. The teachers never carried out their duties. I do not object to teachers receiving higher pay, but it would be nice if they could move to the jobs that they were intended to undertake in return for that pay. There is a vice-principal at a girls' college appointed specifically to look after girls' social problems. She has had to find a new job because the school at which she was employed had only boys.

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So the tale continues. It will continue for as long as the Secretary of State allows Tameside to retain its present system in defiance of the section 13 permission or acceptance that was awarded to it in 1975. Despite Tameside being a hotbed and a sort of virility symbol, or so it appears from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's letter of 30 May, I hope that further consideration will take place. I hope that there will be a generous and reasonable response to the approaches of the local education authority from Tameside. I hope that it will be permitted to elect before 31 December so that it may continue with its proposals.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not reconsider and respond reasonably, the proposals will be resubmitted. If the usual criteria are exercised, there cannot be any reason to reject the proposals. I am willing to bet my salary, improved as it has been, against the right hon. and learned Gentleman's salary, improved as that has been, that he, his successor or his successor's succes- sor will accept the proposals of Tameside, and that those proposals will not differ one jot from those that he is now advising cannot be accepted. For his own sake, his own credibility and his own consistency, I ask him to reconsider.

Amendment No. 21 is much simpler, and the House will be glad to know that it requires rather less argument. It is more self-evident and self-exlanatory. All it seeks—I hope that the Government will accept it on this basis—is a guarantee that the areas that now have the benefit of non-selective systems will not be affected by the Bill.

I know that we have had various half-reassurances. Against the reassurances of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Under-Secretary of State—we recognise them both as honourable, that their word is binding and that their reassurances are meant—there must be set the fact that outside this place the strong impression has been given that if there were an opportunity to dismantle non-selective systems it would be grasped eagerly by certain elements within the Conservative Party.

The impression to which I have referred has certainly been created by the Under-Secretary of State outside this place, if not so frequently by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It has been taken up by many of their right hon. and hon. Friends and it has been recognised, as far as we can ascertain, by the majority of the adult population of the United Kingdom.

It was because of the period over which previous Conservative Governments presided and the foresight and wisdom of certain Conservative local education authorities in the 1950s and early 1960s that Conservative LEAs and Governments contributed significantly towards the progress away from selective education. I am the first to give them credit for that. However, there is a backlash in the Tory Party. I believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman are acutely aware of that. There are elements in their party that want to take a kind of nostalgic vengeance on the non-selective system. They are prepared to blame the comprehensive schools for every possible social upheaval, evil and delinquency. The records, the PA copy and the statements and speeches speak for themselves. I am not accusing any member of the Government Front Bench of being so melodramatic in his attitude towards the selective system.

Because the Bill will enable local education authorities to dismantle schemes for comprehensive education which are at the point of implementation, or which have been partially implemented, the Minister will acknowledge that our distrust is well founded. It can only be laid to rest by the Government accepting an amendment which will enshrine in this measure the words set out in amendment No. 21. If such an amendment is inserted, it will be the significant guarantee which we require. More important than our requirement for guarantee is the security, the stability—the period of calm—for which secondary education, the parents of secondary schoolchildren and the parents of primary schoolchildren who want the best for their children are longing.

It would have been more productive if the Government had introduced a Bill to assist that desire for stability. Instead they have presented a destabilising Bill. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment and remove the fear, regret and indeterminacy from the education debate and from the minds of the affected parents.

Dr. Boyson

I shall speak briefly to amendments Nos. 18 and 21. My right hon. and learned Friend has spoken about amendment No. 18. In so far as this amendment concerns Tameside, my right hon. and learned Friend has said that he considers the original order concerning Tameside—which was never implemented—as being spent, following the change of control in that area. My right hon. and learned Friend is prepared to meet the local authority there. All that is required, if it wishes to continue with the same scheme, is for it to put forward new section 13 notices.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Boyson


If amendment No. 21 were accepted it would mean that any local authority, having once gone comprehensive, would be tied to that scheme for all time. It would be like one Parliament binding its successor—something which cannot be done. Such a move would mean the end of section 13 notices. Once an authority had gone comprehensive there could not be section 13 notices to alter anything. No Parliament could enact such legislation.

Once the measure is enacted it will mean that areas which are happy with their comprehensive schools—and there is a vast number of such areas, I presume—will be able to keep such schools. Areas which are now selective can, if they wish, go comprehensive. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent them. It happened before 1976 and it will happen again. It also means that if any area, having considered the matter, decides that nonselective schools are unsuccessful and wishes to bring back some form of selection, it can put up section 13 notices to do so.

The amendment is the buffer. It is saying, in effect " At last we have found a scheme which can never be altered and which all men will use from now on. Because it is so perfect it is to remain for all time." It always seems to me that Labour Members are worried about the comprehensive schools in many areas, but they do not seem to be able to risk offending public opinion and the elected authorities that keep their comprehensive schools.

We cannot accept amendment No. 18. My right hon. and learned Friend has already referred to Tameside. On amendment No. 21, we cannot tie local authorities down to what they must do in the future. The Bill is not an attack upon comprehensive schools. It is purely giving back to local authorities the right to run the schools that they want. If a comprehensive school is successful in an area, it will obviously have the backing of the public and remain there.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I had hoped to make my point in an intervention, but as the Minister did not give way I should like to make it now.

It seems odd that the Conservative Party has shown such haste to encourage local authorities to renege on proposals for comprehensive education while, at the same time, when a local authority has wished to go ahead with a scheme, it has put so many obstacles in the way of that authority's doing so. That is a clear indication of the Conservative Party's attitude, which is anti and critical of comprehensive education.

I must press the Minister on the question of local authorities going back on comprehensive proposals. It would have been very helpful if the Minister had accepted amendment No. 21, but I hope he will concede that once children have been allocated to a comprehensive school and have completed their first year, reorganisation should not deprive them of the opportunity of completing their education in a comprehensive school. What is causing most anxiety at the moment is the worry that once children have commenced their secondary education, some reorganisation will take place that will deprive them of the opportunity to complete their education within that scheme.

Throughout the period during which schools were going comprehensive, one of the fundamental principles was that once children were allocated to a grammar school they were allowed to complete their education at that school. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to guarantee that those children who start at a comprehensive school will be able to complete their education there even if the local authority comes forward with proposals to change the system.

I know that Tory Members are not particularly keen to listen to the debate. I should have thought they would take a hint from my hon. Friends and just read the debate in Hansard tomorrow, rather than stay here chattering. They are not taking very much interest in the debate, even though some of us want to probe one or two matters.

I feel that if we cannot get assurances on amendment No. 21 we ought seriously to consider dividing the House.

Mr. Kinnock

I shall be very brief. I rise only to meet the point made by the Minister. There is nothing in the amendment or in anything that we have said during the debates on this Bill or on any other that could reasonably lead anyone to believe that we want to tie for all time—to use the hon. Gentleman's words—the system, to immobilise it, to freeze it, to pickle it, or to put it to sleep. We have no wish to anaesthetise the comprehensive school system, now or at any other time. Nor is it the case that if the amendment were accepted there could be no more section 13 notices.

Let me read the amendment again. [HON. MEMBERS: " No."] I do not know whether it is the same with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the more the Tories say " No ", the more I feel " Yes ". The more they say " Yes ", the more I feel " No ".

The amendment says " Nothing in this Act "—no other Act is involved. The purpose of the Bill, the Under-Secretary says, is simply to restore freedoms. If it is only that simple process we have enough confidence in existing comprehensive schemes to know that the initiative to try to destroy them or, which is more important, to reintroduce selective procedures, will come not from the parents or the pupils. It could come, as we have seen it illustrated in Erith and, in a different form, in Tameside in 1976, from Tory politicians at local level who want to superimpose their own particular educational perversion on an area.

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To try to prevent this measure and no other—and I emphasise that—from being used for that purpose we are seeking to make the amendment. If the Under-Secretary wishes us to believe that there is a simple libertarian purpose, inspired not by any great political zeal, but by a democratic conviction, behind this Bill, it is the easiest thing in the world for him to convince us that that was and remains his purpose. He has only to accept the amendment which says that whatever may happen in the future, whatever temperature change may overtake education, whatever new fad may arise, whether there are new black papers, white papers or sky blue pink papers, however great the eminence of the Under-Secretary in the councils of the Tory Party, whether he is replaced by another hon. Gentleman with rather more progressive ideas—I do not think that he is here at the moment—whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of education, this Bill will not be used to invite local education authorities to return to selective schemes. That is the simple reassurance we seek.

We have confidence in the non-selective system. We are not worried about that. There is no reason why the Minister cannot give us that reassurance. I hope that even now he will be willing to accept the amendment on the basis on which we have proposed it and give the parents and the pupils, as well as the teachers who are affected by the indeterminateness of educational schemes and the effects of the Bill, the assurance they deserve.

If the Under-Secretary will accept the amendment he will undertake a final act of generosity which will endear the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State to us to a greater extent than he ever dreamed in his more populist moods.

Amendment negatived.

Bill to be read the Third time this day.

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