HC Deb 19 June 1979 vol 968 cc1119-55

Order for Second Reading read.

3.35 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Since this is the first occasion on which the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) has taken his place on the Labour Front Bench, I wish to begin by congratulating him on his appointment as Shadow spokesman on education. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members on both sides of the House who know the hon. Gentleman will be in no doubt that his contributions to our debates will be of interest and of considerable controversy. I look forward with great interest to see how great that controversy will be. For those of us who take part in these debates it will have the further advantage of giving us greater practice in the correct pronunciation of the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The hon. Gentleman's presence on the Opposition Front Bench seems to be clear evidence of a considerable Leftward lurch of the Labour Party in opposition. I have no doubt that it will be recognised as such. I know that the hon. Member will find, as I have found, that whatever part of the country he visits there is always a genuine interest and concern among parents about education.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman will not open today's debate for the Opposition. I gather that instead he wishes to hear the contributions of other Members to the debate before he makes a speech at the end. I assure him on behalf of everybody on the Government Benches that we are clear and determined that he will have many long years in opposition to learn every aspect of his craft.

The hon. Gentleman's place in opening today's debate is being taken by the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes). I understand that he is making his swansong as education spokesman. Before turning to the Bill, I wish, as a neighbouring Member of Parliament who shares with him in this House the representation of a district, to congratulate him on his appointment to the Privy Council. That appointment gave great pleasure to many of the people he represents.

I now turn to the Bill. I looked back to the debate on the Second Reading of the Education Bill 1976, a debate held in this House on 4 February 1976, and was interested to note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and at that time the Opposition spokesman on education matters, closed his speech with these words: We will do our best to defeat the Bill today. If we do not succeed in that we will do what we can to improve the objectionable clauses. If we are prevented from doing that, we will, when the moment comes, repeal them, because they constitute a threat both to liberty and to learning."—[Official Report, 4 February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 1246.] That moment has now come. The Education Bill that we are now debating was the first Bill to be introduced to Parliament by the present Government on 17 May, it is the second Bill to have a Second Reading debate. Therefore, we have at the earliest opportunity carried out our election pledge to repeal those sections of the 1976 Act and to restore to local education authorities and to local people the right to choose the type of secondary education they wish to have in their areas.

The Bill is very short. It has two clauses, and its scope is limited.

Its simple and sole purpose is to remove the compulsion placed on local authorities and governors of voluntary schools by the 1976 Act to reorganise their secondary schools on comprehensive lines. It does not force the reintroduction of selection. It does not reflect any Government hostility towards comprehensive schools. The Bill in no way prevents authorities in the future from submitting proposals for the reorganisation of their schools on comprehensive lines where this accords with the wishes of local people.

What the Bill does is to restore the position to what it was under the 1944 Education Act. It removes secondary reorganisation from the field of compulsion and places it where it belongs—in the hands of local people. It is our belief that local education authorities and local people—not central Government—are best placed to determine the most suitable form of secondary school organisation in their area. Above all, the Bill allows those areas that have fought—and fought hard—throughout the period of a Labour Government to retain their grammar schools to be allowed to do so. We are not prepared to stand by and witness the destruction of schools of proven worth against the wishes of the local people.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

This question was raised on the Secretary of State's first day in the House of Commons. He failed to answer it then, but has now had more time to master his brief. He talked about local authorities knowing the situation better. If that is a principle to which he and his Government subscribe, why does he not emphasise and use the same principle regarding housing? It is partly his responsibility, as a member of the Cabinet. Why take away housing powers from local authorities but give them powers in education?

Mr. Carlisle

The purpose of the Bill is to restore freedom to local authorities and to local people, as are our provisions in housing. We believe that local people should have a say in the way that schools are provided. On houses we believe that local people should have the right to buy them if they wish to do so.

It is a fact that many areas of the country have freely chosen over the past decade to reorganise their schools on comprehensive lines. It is a fact that certain Conservative authorities were among the first to carry out such a reorganisation, the reason why they did so is clear. They had looked at an area and the needs of that area. They had looked at buildings, at population trends, at the quality of education being provided in the schools, and had come to the conclusion that the best way of carrying out their duty to provide an education under which children could develop their abilities and aptitudes to the full was to develop comprehensive schools. That was their choice, but it is that test—the development of ability and aptitude—which is the one that really counts. Prior to 1976, under Governments of both political colours, local authorities were free to apply that test.

In recent years, under a Socialist Administration, decisions which should have been guided by educational criteria have instead been made on purely political grounds. The comprehensive school has been seen by the Labour Party as a means of achieving social equality and has therefore been compulsorily introduced by those more concerned with egalitarianism than with educational excellence.

This Government believe that the judgment whether a selective or a comprehensive system is the best for an area should be left to the local people. We say that, first, on the ground of priciple. Under the 1944 Act, it has always been accepted that the education service, is a national service but is locally provided, and that it is a partnership in which responsiblities are assigned both to central Government and local government. The 1976 Act represented an unwanted intrusion by central Government into the delicate balance that had always been based on consensus between the two partners. We say that choice should be left to the local people also on hard, practical grounds. The judgment of what is the most suitable form of secondary education for an area is often an intricate one, and must be rooted in the will of local people if the change is to be accepted and to succeed.

Why should the Secretary of State and his officials in Elizabeth House attempt to dictate to a local education authority, which may be many miles away, that one type of school organisation and no other is the right solution for that area? We believe that local people are in a better position to decide. What sense does it make to remove good schools—grammar schools or secondary modern schools—if local people are not satisfied that the change is for the good of their children?

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

In saying that, with which we would all agree, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman guarantee that he will not use his veto powers under section 13 of the Act, as the Prime Minister did when she was Secretary of State, to frustrate applications to go comprehensive by local education authorities that wish to do so?

Mr. Carlisle

I am coming to section 13. I thought that I had made clear at the outset that the Bill does not in itself prevent any application by a local authority to change should it wish to do so.

What service is given to the comprehensive cause if new comprehensive schools are hastily cobbled together in old buildings with inadequate facilities? Decisions must be made locally not only on the comprehensive principle but on the timing of any change. It is only locally that an accurate assessment can be made of all the complicated interaction between the wishes of local people, the condition of buildings, the financial resources available, and the preparedness of teaching staff on whom the success or otherwise of that change depends.

I would like briefly to emphasise one or two points. I said earlier that the Bill does not force the reintroduction of selection. We are not proposing to replace one form of compulsion with another. There will be no obligation on local education authorities to submit new selective schemes if they do not wish to do so. No authority is compelled by the Bill to make any change whatever. My overwhelming impression is that at present, in many areas, whether selective or comprehensive, authorities want most of all a period of stability to concentrate not on organisation but on the quality of education in their schools. It is the quality of education that is inevitably the main concern of parents with children at those schools.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

What will happen in areas in which there is a selective system and children who perhaps are slow starters find at a later stage that they have the ability to move onwards? What will happen to give those children the opportunities to move forward into further levels of education that they would have under a comprehensive system?

Mr. Carlisle

The answer is that the local education authority should have, as many of them did in the past, means by which children can transfer at any age. It is a fact that many 16-year-olds, for example, transfer at this moment.

Miss Sheila Wright (Birmingham, Handsworth)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the number of children transferring from secondary modern school to grammar school has always depended on the number of children transferring from grammar school to secondary modern, so that normally there is a set number of children in a certain form? That is what has happened in the past.

Mr. Carlisle

I do not accept that with regard to my own authority, and neither do I believe that, with the effects of falling numbers in secondary schools that we shall have over the next 15 years, it is likely to apply in the future.

Let me now give one or two figures to the House, because they are important. At the beginning of January last year, there were about 305 maintained grammar schools still in existence. During the course of last year that number dropped by about 50. More such schools will be changing their role and becoming comprehensive this autumn. In half the local education authority areas in England and Wales, all secondary schools are today comprehensive, but that means that the other half retain at least one grammar school.

Just as the Bill does not force a change, equally, it does not prevent an authority from making a proposal for change should it wish to do so. As has been said already, some authorities which today have selective schools are reorganising certain of those schools on comprehensive lines, and may still wish to do so. Equally, some authorities with a comprehensive system of secondary education may wish to reintroduce a degree of selection.

In either case, the initiative will have come from the authority itself, and any such proposal for change—I come here to the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price)—has under the 1944 Education Act to be made to me as Secretary of State. Under the provisions of that Act, a period of two months then has to elapse in which local parents may make their views known. Having considered all the circumstances and all the objections, I shall then have to decide whether to agree to the proposals, either in whole or in part, or to reject them.

In reaching my decision, I shall reserve to myself the right to consider each case on its merits, as has always been done, taking particular account of the effect of the proposals on the standard of educa tion being provided in the area and the views expressed by local people.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

Where a local authority has had approval for a comprehensive system, where it has spent money on the buildings and appointed staff, and it has then temporarily not carried out the reorganisation, does it need to go to a section 13 application again?

Mr. Carlisle

Knowing the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I assume that he is referring to Tameside. I have already indicated my view to Tameside that, since the approval which it received, given so long ago as 1975, related to a particular date, namely, October 1976, and since, following upon that approval, the council resolved not to go ahead with those proposals—indeed, at one stage the council was requested to put in alternative proposals—I consider that that permission, given, as I say, in 1975, is now spent and that the correct course for Tameside, should it wish to reorganise on comprehensive lines, is to submit new proposals under section 13.

I have conveyed those views to Tameside. I understand that the authority has not yet officially notified its views to my Department, but I believe that it is likely to ask for a meeting with me in the near future, and I shall, of course, meet its representatives to discuss the matter.

Our policy is to maintain and improve the standard of all our schools, whether they be grammar, comprehensive or secondary modern schools, or public schools. The Labour Party believes in the absolutism of the comprehensive principle—that all schools must be comprehensive if any school is to be comprehensive. We do not share that view. We believe in a variety of types of school to meet the differing needs of education. We believe that, according to local circumstances, grammar schools and comprehensive schools can exist in different areas of the same authority. The real question is not the label but whether they are good schools providing an education suited to the needs of their pupils and to the satisfaction of their parents.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

Does the Secretary of State recall that over the years the Conservative Party has argued about freedom of choice for parents in secondary education? The whole thrust of his argument now is for freedom of choice for local authorities. When children are selected for a grammar school or a secondary modern school under a selective system, who makes the choice?

Mr. Carlisle

I have argued, I thought, for freedom of choice for both the local authority and for parents. When asked about section 13, I said that the whole principle of that section is that it works on the initiative of the local authority and the reaction by the local people to the proposals made.

As for the hon. Lady's question, clearly, if one has a selective system and if it is necessary to pass the selective system to get into a particular school, the only people who can set that selective system are the local education authorities and the schools themselves. Of course, that is so. But if an area has a system—as many areas have—where there is a comprehensive school giving education through from 11 to 18, with its own sixth form, and in the area of the same authority there is a grammar school, this still gives parents the choice to decide whether they wish their child to try to get into the grammar school or whether, for various other reasons, they wish the child to go to the comprehensive school which is providing education from 11 through to 18.

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

What freedom of choice is there for a child who wants to go to a grammar school, is forced to take the 11-plus examination, as in my constituency—it will have to continue if the Bill goes through—and then fails the 11-plus, as most do, whereas a child in a nearby area who happens to have been born in a different place and lives in a different place will not have to take the 11-plus? The existence of this examination has not even been mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, yet that in itself represents a loss of freedom of choice.

Mr. Carlisle

With the greatest respect, there is a total fallacy in what the hon. Lady says. The fact that one does not have a grammar school does not mean that one therefore has a greater degree of choice than if one has a grammar school to which one does not wish to go. Yet that is what the hon. Lady is saying. If the grammar school is not there, there is still the one school. There is no choice there. The hon. Lady says that the child fails to get into the selective grammar school, but she does not in any way defeat the argument by saying that if there were not the test one would somehow get a wider degree of choice.

I have given way a good deal and, with respect, I wish now to turn to the details of this short Bill. Clause 1 repeals those provisions of the Education Act 1976 which relate to comprehensive education and contain transitory provisions relating to proposals submitted in compliance with the requirements of the previous Administration and which have either been approved or are awaiting a decision at the end of a period of public notice.

Clause 1(1) repeals sections 1, 2 and 3 of the 1976 Act. Local education authorities will, therefore, no longer be required to have regard to the comprehensive principle in the exercise of their functions relating to secondary education. The Secretary of State will also no longer be empowered, as he was under section 2 of the 1976 Act, to require local education authorities or the managing or governing bodies of voluntary schools to transmit or submit proposals for giving effect to the comprehensive principle in their area.

Under section 2 of the 1976 Act it is also possible for the Secretary of State to require further proposals from either the authority or the governing body in substitution for those submitted if the Secretary of State considers them to be unsatisfactory for any reason. Those powers will no longer exist.

As I said in the House on 16 May, those local authorities which were requested by the previous Government to submit proposals under section 2 of the 1976 Act have been informed that they need no longer do so.

Section 3 of the 1976 Act enables the Secretary of State to direct that the proposals submitted under section 2 be treated as though they had been voluntarily submitted under section 13 of the 1944 Act, which is the section that requires application to be made to the Minister if any significant change in the character of a school is proposed. Section 3 is also to be repealed.

The remainder of the clause relates in detail to proposals that the previous Secretary of State directed should be treated as if they were submitted under section 13 of the 1944 Act. The effect of such a direction was to require public notice to be given of the proposals, for objections to be received within two months, and for the Secretary of State to approve, reject, or approve with modifications, those proposals. That means that the transitory provisions have to deal with two situations—first, where approval has already been given and, secondly, where the period of notice is continuing.

Subsection (3) provides that where proposals have been approved under section 13(4) of the 1944 Act the Secretary of State may, on the application of the local education authority, managers or governors of voluntary schools, revoke that approval. If that power were not taken there would be no means by which an authority or governing body could be freed from its duty to give effect to the approved proposals that it had been forced earlier to make under the 1976 Act.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

If I understand the Secretary of State correctly he is proposing a one-off advantage for authorities, whereas in section 13 of the 1944 Act there was a final process under which a local authority need not carry out proposals that had been approved by the Secretary of State. That provision was removed by the last Government in the 1976 Act. Should we not give full freedom so that if a local authority changes or has trouble with costs it is free to decide whether to implement the proposals?

Mr. Carlisle

No. The Bill does not repeal section 4 of the 1976 Act. I shall consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) said, but I am not at the moment persuaded that that would be right. One must have a degree of finality in such matters. If we were to remove section 4 we should never achieve that finality, because an authority could change its mind at any stage in the process of reorganisation.

Subsection (4) deals with those local education authorities and governing bodies which have been required under the 1976 Act to give public notice of reorganisation proposals and when those proposals have not yet been considered by the Secretary of State. In those cases the proposals will lapse under the terms of the Bill unless a local education authority or a governing body requests me in writing to continue to consider its proposals as if they had been submitted voluntarily under the 1944 Act. The Bill provides that any such request shall be submitted by 1 October.

Clause 2 covers the customary provisions relating to the citation, construction and extent of the Bill.

The Bill is aimed at repealing what I can only call the penal clauses of the 1976 Act. Despite the general welcome that the Bill has received from the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities I understand that the Opposition are likely to oppose it.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

That is dead right.

Mr. Carlisle

The Opposition's views are not reflected by the local authorities. The Opposition apparently are content with the 1976 Act. It was an extraordinary piece of legislation. It was not about quality of education or standards. It was not even about improving comprehensive schools. It was solely about compulsion. It was an attempt to compel the whole country to adopt only one type of education just because the Labour Party thought that it was good for us all. Despite that, one or two of its members did not take advantage of the system.

If it had been shown conclusively that a comprehensive school offered far and away the best education for every child in the country there might have been some justification for the 1976 Act, although, in a free society, I can see no ground for the use of State compulsion. If it had been shown to be vastly superior, there would have been no need for compulsion. Parents would have fallen over themselves to have that type of education provided for their area and all other schools would have withered away. However, there is no such evidence.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

The Secretary of State talks about the freedom of local authorities and about not compelling them. Will the authorities be given the same freedom in relation to the sale of council houses?

Mr. Carlisle

It is sometimes dangerous to come into the Chamber halfway through a speech. The same question was raised by another hon. Member earlier.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

And my right hon. and learned Friend dealt with the intervention well.

Mr. Carlisle

One sometimes experiences advantages at the Dispatch Box that one did not enjoy on the Back Benches. Perhaps it has something to do with the reorganisation of the boundaries in Cheshire.

Of course there are good comprehensive schools. A major part of our education policy is to see that the 83 per cent. of our children who are being educated in comprehensive schools receive the best possible education in those schools. However, there is no overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that comprehensive schools provide the best possible education for all children. So long as that is so, there can be no justification for preferring this type of school above all others.

Our policy involves not equality but equality of opportunity. Too many people have attempted to equate equality of opportunity with identical education. That takes no account of children's varying talents. Education is about schools and standards, but first and foremost about children. Parents have the legal duty to educate their children—a duty that does not rest upon the local education authorities. Those authorities are merely required to provide adequate facilities so that parents may exercise their duty.

It is parents and not politicians who should be given the opportunity to choose the school best suited to their child. That choice will be different from one child to another and from one parent to another. It is my task to see, in free and close collaboration with the local education authorities, that there is a variety of good and sufficient schools, in order that, as far as possible, the choice of parents is respected and the education best suited to their children is provided.

Later in this parliamentary Session I shall be introducing a further Education Bill in which the choice of parents and the needs of their children will be a central feature. The present Bill is a first step on the road to greater freedom, greater choice and greater diversity and, I believe, higher standards in education. I invite the House to endorse the policy so recently endorsed by the public at the general election and to support the Bill.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

As I have previously said, although the Secretary of State and I are in many respects bitterly opposed in our political views, we are, and always have been, good constituency neighbours. I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said about my appointment to the Privy Council. I am proud and honoured to be a member of the Privy Council and in this season of maiden speeches, Mr. Speaker, I suppose, in a way, that I am a maiden speaker as a Privy Councillor. However, I am not, and will not be, bound by the rule that maiden speakers are non-controversial.

I also thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock). I warmly welcome him to the Front Bench and hand the baton over to him. Indeed, it is not really handing over the baton—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

It is the hammer and sickle.

Mr. Oakes

—because, as you appreciate, Mr. Speaker, for some months I have been, as it were, a caretaker. I am now handing over the keys of the Shadow Cabinet job to its true holder. I can assure hon. Gentlemen on the Tory Benches—if they are taking any relief from that—that I may well pop up again somewhere else, in pastures new or revisited, to cause them some difficulty.

The Secretary of State reminds me that this is the second Education Bill to come before the House within six months. That is a rare event. The last Administration introduced an Education Bill and our roles were, roughly, reversed. Only a a few weeks ago I was in Committee on one side and the right hon. and learned Gentleman was on the other. That fact calls to mind the contrast between the two Bills. There is first of all a contrast in length. Our Bill contained 30 clauses. This is a Bill of two clauses—one real clause and a defining clause.

Our Bill was an all-embracing measure that dealt with education from nursery school through to a major revision of the management of higher education. That Bill dealt with education problems that are as real for the Secretary of State as they were for us. For example, our Bill dealt with the question of the appointment of parent and teacher governors in schools and with the rights of parents' choice. It dealt with the very important and very urgent problem—urgent for the Secretary of State now, not in years to come—of the rapid decline in the numbers in secondary schools—a decline of 30 per cent. or in some instances as much as 40 per cent. These are the issues that our Bill dealt with when it was before the House.

It is reasonable to say that we got a fair degree of consensus in that Bill. It was not a bitterly antagonistic party-political Bill, and it was one in which I gave way many times because I wanted consensus. I wanted agreement that for at least the rest of the century we should have an all-party approach to some of these problems. We got very near to achieving that.

What is this Education Bill? I thought that the sterile battle was over, but instead of that we have a short, brutish, mean, two-clause Bill brought before the House by the Government. Why did not the Secretary of State include the non-controversial clauses of our Bill, which are just as urgent now as they were then? Why did he not add these clauses, or some of them, to this Bill? It is because the Secretary of State wanted to rush and steam-roller this Bill through the House for reasons that I shall speak of in a moment.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that many parents, teachers and schoolchildren in my part of Greater London are delighted that this Bill has been brought forward so promptly? I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for the promptness of his approach.

Mr. Oakes

I think that many people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency would be even more delighted if some of the major issues of present-day education were dealt with in this Bill, and not, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests, in another Bill that might come later in the Session. Although the Leader of the House may be favourable to education, it is rare that education comes high in the pecking order. Therefore, some of the issues that the Government had the opportunity of dealing with in this Bill may not come within this Session of Parliament though the Secretary of State will have the opportunity of dealing with them later.

This is a short, mean Bill which, in education terms, expresses the whole philosophy of privilege for the few and hardship for the many. We heard that Tory economic philosophy discussed during our debates on the Budget. The Government must realise the harsh fact that this summer about 85 per cent. of our children are being educated within the comprehensive system. It is only the Conservative-controlled local authorities, or pockets and parts of other authorities, which do not adopt the comprehensive system. Therefore, this Bill is dealing with the preservation of a system of education that is not within the mainstream provisions of education in this country.

The Bill seeks not only to perpetuate this situation but as the Secretary of State, forthrightly, told us, in many respects to undermine the existing system of comprehensive education where it exists and is working well. I shall explain my thoughts on that issue later.

I shall not deal in this debate with the educational merits of comprehensive education. I firmly believe in those merits, but I shall not deal with them for two reasons. First, for the past 12 years this House, in the Chamber and in Committee, has discussed ad nauseam the advantages and disadvantages of comprehensive education. Secondly, and far more importantly, many of my hon. Friends, old and new, who have devoted a lifetime to education as teachers and headmasters, can deal with the educational advantages of comprehensive education more effectively than I can. I shall not delay the House in speaking on the issue.

I want to speak about the inescapable effects of this Bill, which, in those areas where there is to be a dual system, will establish some form of selection, whether that selection is 20 per-cent. grammar school and 80 per cent. non-comprehensive secondary modern school, or 25 per cent. grammar school and 75 per cent. non-comprehensive secondary modern school. Under this system the rights of parents of the majority of children cannot be given any credence.

What has happened to the parents' charter that the Conservatives boast about? The parent of a pupil in a secondary modern school in one of the areas that I have described is denied the right to a choice of school because of the selection examination.

Dr. Summerskill

My right hon. Friend is putting very well the point that I put to the Secretary of State. Can my right hon. Friend reply to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reply to me?

Mr. Oakes

Selection is totally inconsistent with the sort of parental choice that we are talking about. Parents can choose between schools when the schools are of roughly the same kind. They can choose a school for the type of subject it provides or its moral ethos. But when selection is introduced, for the majority of parents in the area—not the minority—parental choice is dead. Therefore, I ask again "What has happened to the parents' charter? What has happened to parental choice?"

Only certain areas have the selective system, so that the other stark effect of the Bill is that in preserving them it is creating two nations geographically and, within the areas concerned, socially. What an authority insists on selection, the very fact that it does so means that it is in favour of and supports the grammar schools in the area.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be worrying about resources, not the subject of the Bill. It inevitably means a shortage of resources for secondary modern schools, because the kind of authority that insists on selection will take very good care to see that the grammar schools receive their whack of resources at the expense of other schools in the area. The position becomes worse and worse in matters of staff, buildings, playing fields and books, so that the schools become more and more socially divisive.

Mr. Barry Porter (Bebington and Ellesmere Port)

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would care to give some evidence about those areas that are still selective. Presumably he can give the House figures to prove his point that more money is given to grammar schools than to secondary modern schools. That is certainly not true in the Wirral.

Mr. Oakes

If the hon. Gentleman goes to any authority in the country, looking to the past as well as the present, he will find that where selection lakes place the per capita amount spent in a grammar school is far higher than that spent in a secondary modern school.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

If the Secretary of State has any doubt about my right hon. Friend's statement, I invite him to visit Bolton and see the deprivation in certain of the schools that my constituents have to attend compared with some of the other schools that are now being transferred back to the former system.

Mr. Oakes

I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will visit Bolton. It is not often that giving way fortuitously leads one straight on to the point that one was about to deal with. It is not the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Young) raised, but it concerns Bolton.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Government had a mandate for a Bill of this kind, given by the people at the last election. Let the House look a little more carefully and closely at that claim. I shall deal first with Bolton, a town for which I have a great deal of affection because it was the town that first returned me to the House. It subsequently had a little error of judgment in 1970, but I have forgiven it for that, and I still have a good deal of affection for my hon. Friend's constituency.

The education system in Bolton, where the Conservative-controlled council has tried to retain the selective system, is truly chaotic. In the centre of Bolton, in the old county borough, the old system was retained, there is still the selective process, and there are still grammar schools. In the outer areas of Bolton, inherited from the much more enlightened Lancashire County Council, the compre hensive schools were inherited. The matter is even more complicated, in that the voluntary schools, in the Roman Catholic sector, have now decided that they wish, despite what Bolton wishes, to go comprehensive. With this mixture, the local authority has still fought hard for selection.

What happened in Bolton, one of the key towns? At the last parliamentary election it had two of the most marginal seats in the country—seats that the Conservatives certainly expected to win. I am glad and proud to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, East and Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) both here. That is what happened to the parliamentary seats in that hotbed of controversy over selection. In the local elections there was a truly astonishing result, with 10 Labour gains from the Conservatives. The result is that there is now a Conservative majority of one on the Bolton council. In view of the recent Budget, assuredly next year there will be a tidal wave instead of the usual backlash against an existing Government, and the position will be altered.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the question of the grammar schools is a very live issue in Lancashire? Mine was supposed to be a marginal seat, but I managed to treble my majority. Was the right hon. Gentleman referring to per capita expenditure per annum, or capital expenditure? The capital expenditure on Lancaster grammar school has been miniscule over the years.

Mr. Oakes

I said "per capita expenditure".

I move on to another town, this time across the county border. In Kirklees selection was again an issue. The former Secretary of State, Mrs. Williams, had initiated legal proceedings against Kirklees. There were 17 Labour gains on Kirklees council, in yet another hotbed of controversy over selection.

What happened at Tameside, that bloody battleground of comprehensive education? In 1978 we made three gains, including the seat of the then Leader of the Conservative education group. This time we consolidated the position, with 10 more Labour gains, giving us control of the council.

When Conservative Members talk about a mandate on this issue, I cite those three areas in the North of England, where clearly there is no evidence in the polls that they have any such mandate.

Having mentioned Tameside I cannot resist telling the Secretary of State, who is a learned Gentleman as well as a right hon. Gentleman, that when Tameside puts in new proposals he should remember that the decision in the High Court, which Conservative Members greeted with such glee, is a decision that the local authority shall prevail over the judgment of the Secretary of State. That is a ghost that will remain if the right hon. and learned Gentleman tries to overturn the views of future Labour councils that wish to go comprehensive.

So much for the mandate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about. I now turn to a few details of the Bill, short though it is. First, the very beginning repeals section 1 of the 1976 Act, which sets out the comprehensive principle. Why did the right hon. and learned Gentleman need to do that? If he were merely setting the local authorities free, it would be fair enough for him to say "We shall repeal section 2 and section 3"—the compulsion by the statute that the local authority shall go comprehensive. The right hon. and learned Gentleman need not have denied the comprehensive principle.

What is the effect of the Bill? If Parliament revokes the comprehensive principle, there will be a void, or another principle will go in its place. Presumably the principle that will take its place will be selection. If that is so, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has created a rod to beat his own back and the backs of his friends in local authorities, including the Cheshire local authority.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is creating the machinery and the means for backwoodsmen and extremists in Conservative-controlled councils to say "We may have an effective system of comprehensive education in the county, but there is no statutory authority for it. Indeed, Parliament has ruled against it. Let us change it" Such extremists in Cheshire have been stoutly and valiantly resisted by the Conservative chairman of the edu cation committee, who was my opponent during a previous election. He fought off the challenge vigorously, but there will be further challenges, because the Conservative Government are trying to over-egg the pudding by repealing not only sections 2 and 3 of the 1976 Act but, in an excess of zeal, section 1, which embodies the comprehensive principle.

Mr. Carlisle

Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that we can repeal sections 2 and 3 without repealing section 1? Section 1 refers to secondary education and states that local education authorities shall … have regard to the principle that such education is to be provided only in schools … not based (wholly or partly) on selection. The section removes the right of any local authority to have other than comprehensive schools.

Mr. Oakes

The right hon. and learned Gentleman need not have removed the section; he could have attempted to amend it. However, his action has given the impression to many, especially those in the Conservative Party, that Parliament has overturned the principle of comprehensive education and that in doing so either there will be a void or something else will be put in its place, namely, the principle of selection. I do not believe that the Conservative Party, or the House as a whole, wants that to happen. In many authorities, including Conservative-controlled authorities, comprehensive education exists and is working well. It is in many instances acceptable to the ruling Conservative Party.

I turn to the transitional provisions. Enormous powers are given to the Secretary of State. It appears that after approval has been given under the section 13(4) procedure it will be within the power of the Secretary of State, on the application of the authority concerned, to overturn that approval.

We are dealing not only with the 1976 Act. I appreciate that Conservative Members detest that Act. The provisions of section 13(4) are to be found in the 1944 Act—an Act respected by both sides of the House. What is the procedure under that Act? It is one that involves notices. It is a procedure that deals with consultation. It is not a rubber-stamping procedure. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was good enough to say—it has always been the position of successive Secretaries of State in Labour and Conservative Governments—that the most careful consideration is given to proposals that come within that subsection.

The Bill provides that even if the procedure has been followed, and even if a Secretary of State has given approval, the Secretary of State in office, on the application of the authority, can overturn the earlier approval. That smacks of retrospective legislation. It smacks of a complete disregard of the wishes of the people. The right hon. and learned Gentleman presumed to talk about the wishes of parents but in fact he was talking about the wishes of the authority concerned.

If the Conservative Party is so concerned with parents, as it pretends to be, why is it that in the whole of this measure the word "parent" never appears? Why is it that the word "teacher" never appears? The Secretary of State will have power to overturn, on the application of the authority, without going to the parents or the teachers of the authority. He is arrogating unto himself powers to deny what a previous Secretary of State has done.

I return to the "King Charles's head" of an authority such as Tameside. Let us suppose that a previous Secretary of State has approved arrangements under section 13(4), the current Conservative-controlled council opts to renege, and a subsequent Labour-controlled council submits to the Secretary of State proposals that have already been approved by a previous Secretary of State. That will result in a lovely legal tangle. That is not an idle prediction. That is likely to happen. I predict that it will happen in many authorities if the Bill is enacted as it stands.

In clause 1(4) we find the words "or governors concerned". I take that to mean the difference between voluntary schools and local authority maintained schools. If it does, I am content.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

It does.

Mr. Oakes

If it were to mean that either the governors or local education authority could go to the Secretary of State, I should violently disagree. That would be setting one against the other. I am satisfied on that minor issue.

Clause 1(4) provides that when public notice of proposals has been given by the authority concerned they shall continue to be treated as if they had been submitted to the Secretary of State under subsection (1) or (2)". That shifts the onus entirely on to the local education authority to elect whether it will continue. That is monstrous. The local education authority will have decided to publish the notices but the Bill will make the authority elect whether it wishes to continue, and to make that election before the magic date of 1 October 1979.

Mr. Carlisle

The right hon. Gentleman appears to be missing the point that both subsections apply only to instances where the original proposal has been submitted as a result of a direction given by the previous Minister under section 2 of the 1976 Act. Before subsection (4) comes into being it must be clear that the local authority was acting not voluntarily but in compliance with requirements made against its wishes by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Oakes

I am well aware of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. It seems that he is disputing that in the circumstances to which I have referred local authorities were acting under the law of the land as laid down by Parliament. It seems that he is disputing that such authorities obeyed the law of the land at the time. The notices have been published, but the Government will seek to force authorities to elect whether they wish to continue.

I turn to the magic date of 1 October 1979. It may be that the Under-Secretary of State will explain where it comes from, what is magical about it, and from where it was plucked. Let us consider it in terms of the Bill's timetable in the House. We are nearing the end of June. The Bill will go into Committee. It will have to complete its passage in Committee before being returned to the House. It will go to another place, and it may be returned from another place. There is a possibility that the Bill will not become law before 1 October 1979. By that time local authorities must make their election.

Again I ask, what is the magic of 1 October—except the strong possibility that this Bill will not have completed its stages and receive the Royal Assent by the date on which local authorities must make their election?

Suppose the Secretary of State is lucky and the Bill receives the Royal Assent by the end of July? Does he realise what he is doing to local authorities? Of course he does. Local authorities normally do not meet in August. Everybody is on holiday. The education committee has to meet in September and consult governors and have its decisions approved by the full council. This date has been chosen to prevent authorities from making an election to continue with the proposals that they put forward.

After three years in the Department of Education and Science, I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot treat local authorities, Labour or Conservative, like that. They do not like it one little bit. They like to be given their own time, and proper time, to make their decisions democratically in the committees and not to be harassed by the imposition of a particular date.

This is a bad Bill. It is bad for local education authorities in that the misery of indecision has been prolonged, and because some Conservative councils which have comprehensive education will be harassed by extremists because of the revocation of section 1 of the 1976 Act. It is bad for parents, because they will have not only the miseries of the 11-plus decision for their children but the uncertainty about whether the local authority's political control will change. It is particularly bad for teachers, who will be constrained, without any consultation, to conform to a system that they may consider alien to the educational development of their pupils.

I should like to explain why I feel so contemptuous of this squalid and venomous little Bill. In order to pander to the prejudices, not even of the whole of the Conservative Party, by any means, but of vociferous pockets of reactionary backwoodsmen, the Government are prepared to perpetuate the torture of the 11-plus rat-race for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of children—in this of all years, the Year of the Child. That is particularly detestable.

I accept that the Secretary of State will have might on his side in the Lobby to- night, but we shall have right on ours. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends unanimously to vote down this squalid little Bill.

4.42 p.m.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

My family is present today so I hope that I shall not be thought discourteous if I leave shortly after speaking to look after them for a short time. They include a number of young children. I hope that the House will understand.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) is present, because he will be associated with much of what I say about the London borough of Ealing.

In making my maiden speech I am conscious of the record in the House of my predecessor, Bill Molloy, who will be remembered by everyone as a man of warm heart who had a deep and genuine love of Parliament and its institutions. I am pleased and honoured to pay tribute to what he did in the House and the constituency.

The constituency of Ealing, North has come together from a collection of small communities, formerly villages, and has considerable cohesion and drive. Much local employment is provided by private industry, and the citizens of the constituency have had prosperity which is acceptable to most. However, in recent years we have been depressed with the movement away of industry and the transformation of many industrial premises into warehouses. That is a trend which I hope and believe will be reversed under this Government. The London borough of Ealing is well and widely known as the "Queen of the Suburbs" and rightly so. I am proud to be associated with it.

I am interested in the Bill because I wish to speak about two related subjects—comprehensive schools and values in society and schools. I have had the honour to serve in purpose-built comprehensive schools for 20 years. I count myself a proud and happy member of the greatest profession of all—the teaching profession. I have held every kind of post in comprehensive schools, from the pastoral side to the academic side. The last seven years I spent at the top end of a purpose-built mixed comprehensive of more than 2,000 pupils. I therefore feel that I have some inside contribution to make to the House.

There are supporters of the comprehensive principle in all parties. It does not do for Labour Party members to suggest that they are the only ones who have supported the principle. I am not setting out to be controversial, but, as a professional in schools for over 20 years now, I have been dogged by the doctrinaire approach of the Labour Party on his issue. Labour Members have done us in the schools no favour—I do not think that they realise that—in the way that they have oversold them and raised public expectations to the point of impossibility saying that every child in them will have a grammar school education. That is not possible, nor is it desirable.

In a good comprehensive school every child has an education commensurate with his ability and aptitudes. The tragedy is that not all comprehensive schools are as good as the best, and it does not do to pretend that they are.

As a principle the comprehensive principle is exciting and challenging and I have been excited and challenged to work with it over all these years. I am happy to attempt to persuade those in my party and people outside that the principle is a worthy one, but we must remember that it is difficult. We should not simplify the job that faces heads and staffs in running these schools successfully. When I listen to education debates I sometimes wonder whether schools and children are in the minds of those taking part.

Because of the constant furore, standards have not been discussed in the calm atmosphere that is needed both in schools and in politics. In the end, what matters to children, to parents, to teachers—in terms of job satisfaction, and so on—and to the country's future is that children achieve high standards in work, attendance and behaviour. Discussions along these lines have not been held in the sound atmosphere that we need because of the pressure from the Labour Party towards a unitary system of secondary education.

Tragically, some parents lack confidence in comprehensive schools. It does not help anyone to pretend that that is not so. Many have full confidence in these schools. A good school—my own, with a 12-form entry, is oversubscribed and very successful—can establish itself and command the confidence of the community, the children and the staff associated with it. But others do not, and it does not help to say that they are all good and that the country should therefore be forced into a unitary system simply on principle. By their results and deeds, we shall know them. That is the way in which the public judge them. We must obtain wider parental confidence than there is now.

Teachers are in an impossible position. Many of them have been pressurised by some teacher unions into supporting systems with which they were not wholly in sympathy. What is needed is evolution in education. We do not need the educational revolution that has been proposed by the Labour Party for so many years.

We must move to a situation of "live and let live" Yesterday I spoke to comprehensive school teachers and heads and to the heads of independent grammar schools. We agreed that we desperately needed from politicians and others involved a period of live and let live, with no pressure to go one way or the other. We must take a path that gives choice of type of school to parents. "Choice" is not a dirty word. It is not wrong to have choice of school—even though it is not open to everybody. It is nonsense to say that there can be no choice because there is not total choice.

This is the danger. Some have argued that there could not be a choice of curricula in schools. Many schools have been pressed to offer a single curriculum for all children regardless of ability. For the past 10 or 15 years there has been a tremendous battle to continue to give a choice of courses for all children. If a choice of course and curriculum does not mean the full implementation of the comprehensive principle, I do not know what does. That principle has been forgotten by many Labour authorities and schools have been damaged.

I come to the lack of values in some of our young. We must teach Christian values in schools. I make no compromise. Pupils may be free to accept or reject those values, but we must offer them. That does not happen in all schools. Indeed, in far too many it is not happening at all. Most successful schools are based on the Christian ethos. Even in multiracial schools there is no harm in such a foundation. Indeed, it is a dereliction of our moral responsibility not to teach our own national values and culture which are based upon Christendom. Let us remember that. However, we must pay attention to and teach world religions for the benefit of the ethnic minorities.

It is further argued that we should not teach moral or Christian values as some groups in schools do not subscribe to them and that we must therefore not teach them. This is the way to vacuous minds, vandalism and hooliganism. That is where we have gone wrong.

I hope that the Secretary of State will support the proposal of the London borough of Ealing to establish a new Church of England high school. In Ealing there are five Church of England first schools and two middle schools. However, there is no high school. The Conservative majority on the borough council was elected on a mandate to establish a Church of England high school. Support for this by the Secretary of State, in concert with the London borough of Ealing, would show Government support for denominational schools and Christian education.

I do not say that maintained non-denominational schools should be forgotten. I have worked only in such schools. We neglect the teaching of moral values in them at our peril. I have always concentrated on that aspect from positions of leadership in schools. There is a need to see that religious studies courses are available in all maintained, denominational and other schools. In far too many schools such courses are not available. We must ensure that there are proper religious studies departments. This is an area in which we need to work much harder.

Education is a process. It is not an end in itself. Education is a steady process, taking children from an early age to maturity, influencing them, helping them and enabling them to learn and study. Thomas Arnold, the great headmaster of Rugby, said: My object will be, if possible, to form Christian men, for Christian boys I can scarcely hope to make. What he meant was clear.

May I throw into the maelstrom one or two snippets about areas in which I think money could be saved in education? I appeal to the Secretary of State to suspend the operation of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act in schools. It is an Act which involves local education authorities in high expense. I have attempted to operate it. It is not geared to schools. It costs a great deal of money which should otherwise be used for books and teachers. That should be done immediately. Secondly, will the Secretary of State consider doing something about the impossibly stringent and costly fire regulations that are imposed upon all schools? Those regulations and their enforcement also divert resources from books and educational materials. That is where we want the money. Finally, I appeal to him to amend the disastrous Children and Young Persons Act 1969 as soon as possible.

4.57 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

It is a great privilege to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). He began, very properly, with a tribute to William Molloy, who won great respect and admiration on both sides of the House. He was a persistent Member of Parliament for the Ealing, North constituency. I am sure that the House appreciates the tribute paid by the hon. Gentleman. We are glad that there is now a Government supporter with great experience of comprehensive education. As he has been a practising teacher for so long, that is of great advantage. We look forward to his participating in our debates, especially those on education.

I welcome this opportunity of being freed from the burdens of office and therefore being able to speak from the Back Benches on my favourite topic.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) on his achievement. We in the Labour Party have undervalued the contribution that education has to make to the society that we want. I have always been a fervent believer in education. The hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned values. In a way they are more important than acad emic learning, which is over-valued in some parts of our education service. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty shares my expectations of the good society. Education has a vital role to play. The man who taught me in the closely-knit Socialist community in which I was privileged to grow up put service to the community before the accumulation of material goods when he referred to success.

I have one complaint about the Government's strategy, of which this Bill is a part. They say "Let people stand on their own feet". What they mean is "Reinforce the strong and let the rest take their proper positions in society". I want a growing community in which everybody feels that he belongs. I am sorry to say that our education service is more divisive than ever before. At one time we had social selection. Then, with our partisan encouragement, it became academic selection. That was an important step forward. But most of us are now beginning to realise that the academic yardstick is not sufficient if we are talking about equality of opportunity and what education does.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty because I regard his portfolio as one of the most important in politics, let us make no mistake about that. We concentrate far too much on publishing blueprints for economic miracles and changes in our economic and industrial structure, and so on, and neglect, at our peril, what the education service can do by way of creating a good community.

When the Secretary of State introduced the Bill, I naturally went back to the original debate of 1976. In a speech that was a model of brevity the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that we were not discussing the principle of comprehensive education because in a way that had been decided. With respect, we are discussing it because the Bill sets the clock back. We are bound to discuss comprehensive education.

I turn to two aspects of the Bill that I wish to discuss. First, there is the uncertainty created by the Bill. The Undersecretary of State is always reminding us of what is so important in the education service—teacher morale and teacher certainty about the continuity of the educa tion process. This is a revival of the argument that has been settled. It is dead. The Conservative Party dare not say to the country "We believe in selection at 11-plus." It is time it stopped saying "We are against selection but we want to retain selective schools." That is nonsense.

Sooner or later the Secretary of State will have to make up his mind where he stands on the comprehensive principle. I was a teacher before the war, and comprehensive education was being discussed then. It has now come back into the political arena and has once more become a political football. I do not underestimate the effect of this Bill on teacher morale. The truth is that the reorganisation of schools is no longer an issue.

The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons, in the discussion on the Education Bill 1976, said in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley): Parents are concerned not with how schools are organised but with how their children are taught."—[Official Report, 4 February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 1234.] The Secretary of State said much the same thing this afternoon, yet here we have this controversial, reactionary Bill to deal with reorganisation.

The second matter that I wish to discuss is my concern over the balance between central and local government. I am a local government man. As well as being a schoolmaster, I was privileged to be the chairman of an education authority. In those days I thought that central Government had far too much power. However, when I went to the Department—one of the most privileged periods of my life—at Elizabeth House, I was constantly reminded of the power of local authority. There is a delicate balance which I recognise and which I believe it is valuable to maintain. The way in which we organise our education system has no equal. I am, therefore, a supporter of that delicate balance.

With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in this Bill he is abdicating his responsibility, and I shall say why. We must have a framework of national policy which enables the educational ideas in which we believe to be implemented in schools and allows local authorities to carry out their statutory duties. This does not mean dull uniformity or rigidity. When anyone talks to me about rigidity, dull uniformity and central Government compulsion, I wonder where he has been during the past 25 years. We must have a national policy which enables local authorities to get the best possible return from the allocation of resources and at the same time meet the real needs of the children for whom they have statutory responsibility.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Park introduced the Bill in February 1976, he said that its object was to give effect to Government policy on comprehensive education. When the Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate will he explain the Government's policy on secondary education and on reorganisation? Is it just to say to local authorities "Do what you like? What you determine we shall approve", or do the Government have a policy?

I remember the remarkable circular 10/65, issued by Tony Crosland. He was criticised by some of my colleagues, and I was not too happy about the tremendous range of possibilities that he set out for reorganising secondary education. There were six choices. If proof is required that it was not rigid, the Under-Secretary of State is a perfect example, as he was the head of a comprehensive school. Was there any time when he felt inhibited about implementing the policy of education in which he believed? Of course not. Was there any time when the Government said "We have passed a Bill in favour of comprehensive education. You must stop doing this, you must do that and this is outlawed"? Of course not.

The hon. Gentleman is on record as saying that he believed in the extension of comprehensive education. He went on to say that he wanted comprehensive schools to strengthen the academic tradition of grammar and public schools and to offer that type of education to an increasing percentage of the school population. That is arguable. I differ from him on that in some respects, but that is not for debate today. The hon. Gentleman was able to pursue that view of education despite the Government's judgment, given to the country, that they believed in the comprehensive principle.

The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. It is his duty, at Elizabeth House, to formulate policy and to say that the Government either do or do not believe in selection. Either the Government believe in reorganising secondary education on the comprehensive principle or they do not. If they do not, we can argue about it. At the moment, however, every speech made by every Tory spokesman on education indicates that the Government are not against comprehensives but want to retain selective schools.

In Britain no two schools are alike. One of the joys of being in the Department of Education and Science was that I was able to visit schools all over the country. I have not yet seen a school where children do exactly as they like. Those who report that that is so in the popular press do not know what they are talking about. There are no schools where children do exactly what they like. More schools follow the tradition of maintaining discipline such as that followed in the school of which the Under-Secretary of State was a headmaster than do not. There are more traditional schools than there are so-called free-for-all schools.

In our comprehensive schools today we have some mixed ability teaching and in others the children are streamed more rigidly than in the grammar school that I attended. Most schools in this country give an academic pecking order. I am against it, but it happens. No local authority or central Government spokesman can stop it happening. Some schools place greater emphasis on vocational subjects, and so on.

What I am saying is that it is the attitude of the head and of the teachers that matters. I do not want to see politicians being able to say "You will not teach in this way or in that way." Certainly no Bill that the Labour Government brought forward, no legislation that we enacted, no circular that we sent out, ever suggested that that would be so.

The truth is that as a Minister in the Department of Education and Science, from the Government Front Bench or from the Opposition Back Benches, or as the chairman of a local authority—in which office I had much more power than ever I had at the DES or in this House—one cannot go into a school and say "This is the way in which you will teach and this is what you will teach." I was a headmaster, too. When I think back, the power of the headmaster sometimes frightens me.

The suggestion that comprehensive education is in some way a Marxist plot is the biggest bit of nonsense that I have heard. If it were so I would not be part of it. But we must go back a bit. The development of comprehensive schools was a natural response to the unfairness, inaccuracies and sheer waste of time which the old secondary system imposed on the education service. The social change that was brought about by the Second World War ensured that the education service had to be subjected to radical change. Before 1939 fewer children went to secondary school than now go on to higher and further education. Parents would not tolerate in any way a return to the selective system that can now be imposed by local authorities in various parts of the country.

The 1944 Act made fundamental changes to the basic framework of the education service and to the organisation of our schools. No one said that local authorities could retain the old elementary school. It had to go. Fundamental changes were laid down. No one said that Lord Butler was dictating to local authorities and to the country—of course not.

Today a small number of authorities are standing out against the comprehensive principle. At a time when the education service is under greater pressure than it has ever been under in my lifetime, the Government bring in a Bill to give freedom to the backwoodsmen. What happened at Tameside should surely be a lesson to all of us about the balance between local authorities and central Government. We have had the position in Bolton brought to our attention. Everyone knows that the old tripartite system is not acceptable any longer and, indeed, is not working.

Our education service is still far too divisive. Last night I was browsing in the Library, looking into the division in our education service. I was looking at the "Guide to the House of Commons", produced by The Times. Unfortunately, the new book has not been published yet, so one is not able to do an analysis of new Members.

Mr. David Young

It is even worse.

Mr. Armstrong

Yes. In the October 1974 intake there were 205 products of the public school. Some of them are my friends. I am not making personal or political attacks; I am talking about the unrepresentative nature of our institutions, of industry and of the corridors of power, because of the failures of the education system and particularly its divisive elements.

I was amazed to find that 246 Members of Parliament had been to Oxbridge. As I have told my constituents, we have the most intelligent establishment in the world, judged on IQ, and so on—although many of us do not take too much notice of so-called IQs.

This shows that we are less representative of the experiences outside the House of the normal people who we are always telling what to do and what not to do. We try to discover what motivates them to give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and to improve their performance—and I certainly do not accept that tax incentives is the way to do it. But the House is less representative of the nation now than it was in 1945, when we had a much bigger representation of people from the workshop, the field, the factory and so on than we have now. That is because our education system works in that particular way, so it is divisive.

Equality of opportunity is not giving all children a chance to contract into the rat-race. That is one of the problems. There are many children who, far from dropping out—and the reasons why they drop out are manifold; some drop out because they were labelled far too early in life and accepted the label—have never dropped in. They have never had the opportunity to compete on fair terms. That will continue so long as we overstress—I know that the Under-Secretary holds these views strongly—academic ability as the sole criterion of whether a child ought to have further education, and so on. We must give far more scope to other talents which are just as important in the life of the nation as academic talent.

The whole philosophy of the present Government, in the Budget and everything else, is to see life as a competition. In education, competition has mean that the winners—the minority—have had the lion's share of resources. Perhaps the worst feature is that very often they have had the best teachers. As hon. Members know, that depends very often on the head, in his allocation of staff, and so on. The rest have had what we call a limited education.

In his opposition to the Labour Bill, I was interested to note that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that most parents wanted for their children an education that was basic and simple. My goodness, that has been the philosophy of the Conservative Party down the years—something that is basic and simple, which will fit young people for the jobs that the Conservatives want them to do in our society.

Although the three Rs are important, children need far more than that. They need a much broader curriculum. The Secretary of State must face up to his responsibilities. We hear so much now about microchips and the technological revolution, and so on. The other day I was reading a report which said that in 15 years' time 10 per cent. of the work force will be able to provide more than we need in the way of resources. That forecast may be hopelessly wrong, but if it is 50 per cent. instead of 10 per cent., or 60 per cent., what a problem it will be in terms of education in the proper use of our time and the need to share our resources instead of fighting each other for them, and so on. The education service has a great contribution to make.

The only alternative to selection is a system of non-selective or all-in comprehensive secondary schools. One cannot have both. From the Government Front Bench we are owed the Government's judgment on the question whether they are in favour of selection or of the comprehensive system and the comprehensive principle. Where do the Government stand?

Their present policy would permit gross inequalities of educational provision in different localities. Let us suppose that a local authority wants to build a single-sex grammar school, perhaps because the controlling party on the authority is looking ahead and thinks that it will be out of control, and it wants to convert a school operating at present into a single-sex grammar school. What kind of criteria would the Secretary of State use? In three years' time there might be a change in political control. Are we suggesting that that kind of thing can be allowed in our education service? Tameside should be a reminder.

I feel so strongly about these matters that whenever I speak I try to correct some of the things that we have done wrong in the past. I never again hope to hear from Labour Members that we want grammar schools for all. For some children grammar schools can be inhibiting and prevent their natural growth. We do not need a grammar school education for every child but the kind of education that will help each child realise its full potential.

Although it is not party policy, I believe in neighbourhood schools. I have watched them in other parts of the country and tried to operate them myself. It is nonsense to try to achieve a social mix—whatever that may mean—by bussing children about the countryside and tinkering with catchment areas. I grew up in a West Durham mining village. The worst thing that happens to me when I go abroad is to be invited to the ballet. It is sheer torture. I do not boast about that. Looking back, it could be said that I was deprived because I did not have access to the theatre, classical music or the ballet. I had a community life in a closely-knit mining community where the warmth, fellowship and open-door policy more than compensated for the deprivations of certain cultural pursuits.

Where we have a "sink" school—I never use that term unless I am repeating what others have said—the remedy is good staffing and putting in extra resources, which can be said to be positive discrimination. The school becomes the focal centre of the community. Communities have sufficient culture and drive. They do not want leaders implanted from outside. They want men and women to lead them who have grown up with them and gone to the local school. I am a neighbourhood school man.

In conclusion—I say this particularly to the Government Front Bench—Britain cannot and will not solve its problems by rewarding the so-called successful, strong and privileged at the expense of the mass of our people. We must recognise the worth and dignity of every human being—low-paid dustmen, bricklayers, those who work with their hands and those with no incentive to continue the education progress in later life.

This Bill puts the clock back. It is divisive, it attacks the comprehensive principle and revives an argument that has long since been settled by everyone who has an inkling of what real education is about. I support my right hon. and hon. Friends in opposing it lock, stock and barrel.

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