HC Deb 29 January 1981 vol 997 cc1149-57

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

9.13 pm
Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

When, in the early 1970s, it was realised from statistics that there would be a fall in school rolls, many of us who were passionately interested in education felt that there would be a great chance for education to improve. As there would be no diminution in the numbers of staff, we felt that one major section of Government would have a great opportunity to make a realistic improvement without becoming involved in greater expenditure in real terms.

When that did not happen, it was a substantial disappointment to us. For the first time, we have a Prime Minister who was a Secretary of State for Education. Therefore, we were particularly bitterly disappointed when we discovered how little extra money would go to her old Department.

Expenditure is a matter of priorities. Many of us would take issue with the priorities of this Government. There are people who would take issue with the priorities of any Government. I say this because I do not want the Minister to reply that there is no alternative. There is always an alternative. I would personally prefer blackboards to guns.

I am talking specifically today about the problems of Cambridgeshire and perhaps shire counties in general.

Any rural constituency with an abundance of small schools will find that due to county directives and less rate support grant they are told that there will have to be a cut of, say 1.9 per cent. in the number of teachers. They can make cuts of this sort only from the large schools. To impose a staff cut on a small school would mean closing it altogether.

Before going into specifics, I should like to remind the Minister, with whom I have had many gainful debates over the years in Committee and in this Chamber, that things have changed enormously since the days of his successful headmastership of Highbury Grove. Most significantly, there is nothing like the spirit or the job satisfaction that formerly existed in teaching. If I were a doctor dealing in the diseases of teachers, the most common prognosis would perhaps be that of diminished resilience. This resilience can get a lift only through appreciation by employers and the joy of teaching rewarding kids. All of us are interested in achieving that.

I want to talk, in the first instance, of the village schools in Cambridgeshire. It has always been my contention and perhaps that of all Liberals, or old-fashioned Liberals, that a community is based on four cornerstones. Those cornerstones, in whatever order one chooses to take them, are the school, the church, the pub and the shop. If one destroys any one of those cornerstones, one begins to wreck the community.

I am unhappy about the criteria currently used for closing schools. I am privileged to represent an education system that was master-minded by Henry Morris, one of the great chief education officers and perhaps the first person to come out into the open and say that a school is not something that is open for so many months in the year, so many days in the week, and so many hours in the day, but is part and parcel of the community. Under Mr. Morris, women's institutes and British Legions stopped having separate meetings in separate huts, sold the huts or sites, and moved into the school. The school became part of the community.

I should like to instigate the most careful Government surveillance before any further small schools are closed, especially those that play their part outside school hours. I talked about small schools to the Secretary of State the other day. He thought that I meant schools of seven, eight or 10 pupils. I do not. I believe that 25 is 'about the minimum figure for achieving viability in a primary school. If the school number were about 25, I would beg the Government to think most carefully before agreeing to sign a section 12 notice.

The counties around Cambridgeshire have done two significant things. Suffolk has looked at the closure of seven schools and recommended the closure of four, keeping two open and partially retaining one. At a county council meeting on Tuesday evening it reprieved all seven.

Essex, with infinite wisdom, decided that in view of the county council elections next May it would be wrong for the councillors to initiate legislation which would be implemented by their successors, or possibly even by them, if they kept their seats. That is a responsible way of dealing with an irrevocable issue. When one closes a school, there is no going back. I do not believe there is a school in the country which, once closed, has been reopened a few years later. Once a school is closed, that is the end. They go in only one direction.

I urge the Minister to discuss the subject of village schools with his noble Friend the Minister of State, who, I think, has no great desire to speak to Members of this House. On two occasions, I have telephoned her office and written to her, but I have received no reply. The only way is to table questions. However, I shall forgive her if she will look with enormous care at the requests to implement section 12 notices in respect of schools that are in viable villages.

Cambridgeshire—here again I take issue with the county council—has a structure plan which seems to work on the basis "If we can hit them, let's get them when they're down". It is the opposite of the Robin Hood syndrome: it is "take from the poor."

In villages like Witcham and Pymoor, both of which have threatened schools, a new headmaster is put into the school, and noises are then whispered abroad about the school being closed because of the inability to find the right teaching staff. What then happens is that the structure plan allows no further building, not even infilling, which means that, with the best will in the world—and both villages are attractive and happy villages—it is impossible to bring in more people to bring up the school rolls. That is my plea for village schools.

The second important point that I should like the Minister to consider is the state of education in North Fenland, particularly in Wisbech. Wisbech is a town of just under 20,000 inhabitants, with rather more from the surrounding villages. The system there might truly be said to be the worst possible system of education in the world. We have excellent primary schools which send all the children, at the age of 11, to single-sex schools—the Queen's boys school and the Queen's girls school. For two years, the single-sex schools are comprehensive—if it is possible to be comprehensive as single-sex schools—and at the age of 13 there is a creaming off to the grammar schools. That means that the boys are left behind in the boys' school and the girls in the girls' school. They feel that being left behind is a punishment for being academically less able than those who are selected and win co-education.

As a result there has been exacerbated divisiveness in a town which has always prided itself on being the integrated capital of the Fens. The divisiveness is now clearer than ever. Unemployment in Wisbech is 12.6 per cent. with another 3 per cent. to come when Smedley's factory, which employed nearly 500 people, closes in April. It is obvious, in such a conurbation when few jobs are available for a lot of applicants, that the jobs will go to those with the best possible credentials and the best possible education. This means that with selection at 13—many would say rejection at 13—that is the age at which kids know that it will be extra difficult for them to find a job.

Lord Redcliffe-Maud said that the ideal eduction system is a national service which is locally administered. The Minister may remember that when we were on an Education Bill Committee many years ago I argued in that Committee that whereas Redcliffe-Maud was absolutely right, there had to come a point at which central Government should have the right to overrule a decision made at county level.

I think it was Leicestershire which at that time had suggested having seven-week Christmas holidays and three-week summer holidays in order to save heating in schools. That seemed to me to be an insane system, because it simply took the expense of heating from the public authority in order to ruin private families. As a bonus, it meant that very few children could go on holiday with their parents, who were not as elastic in their holiday arrangements as they would have liked to be.

My contention is that the position in Wisbech is now so bad that it is time—and this is the only solution—for the Government to intervene.

We very nearly succeeded in having an integrated education system until it was found that the Wisbech grammar school was a voluntary aided school. The trouble about voluntary aided schools is that, whereas the education authority is allowed to pay for them, the voluntary aided school governors are the ones who decide what goes on. The county could not even reduce the three-form intake to a two-form intake or a one-form intake. The only option that was open to the county was to cease to maintain it and to have a no-form intake.

The education system in this case is not only bad but unsatisfactory and divisive, and Wisbech has, many feel as a direct result, one of the highest per capita rates in Britain for juvenile crime. There are other miseries, such as a minimal number of opportunities for youth entertainment, and few chances, because of the diminishing transport, for kids to get to towns such as Peterborough and Kings Lynn, where there is alternative joy.

It is time that the Government sought to have powers to change a system which does as much harm to a community as the continued existence of an elitist grammar school does to the town of Wisbech. I do not blame the governors—they are there to protect the school and they are doing the best they can to protect it—but I blame the system, and I know the extent to which my constituents suffer as a result of it.

There are three further points that I should like to make. The first concerns governors. There are people in this country, and there are certainly people in Cambridgeshire—the hon. Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major), who represents the county south of where I am, will, I am sure, agree—who collect governorships and managerships of schools in the way that girl guides used to collect badges. It is high time, when new legislation is brought in perhaps to implement the Taylor report, so there is a limit on the number of such appointments that any one person can have.

I suggest that a governorship of one school in the primary sector and two in the secondary sector—or perhaps the other way round—is really more than enough. But almost the worst of all is having the same person on the board of governors of the selective grammar school and on the board of governors of a single-sex non-selective school.

My second point concerns teacher mobility. The Minister will remember from his days as a headmaster, and before that as a schoolmaster, that there are two ways of teaching in a school. I am talking not of teaching in laboratories but simply of teaching the arts or languages. Either the teacher has a room and the kids go to him, or the kids have a room and the teacher goes there. I should like to take this one stage further and have peripatetic teachers. Some counties use them.

I should like great Government encouragement to be given on this matter. Far too often we hear that a one-and a-half-teacher or two-teacher or even three-teacher school is educationally not viable, because a child might fall out with the teacher on his first day at school and have a miserable life for the next six years. That may have been so in the dark 1930s and 1940s, when there were straight-through schools from 5 to 14. At that time some kids might have hated their teacher for the whole nine years of their education.

With greater mobility now, surely it would make sense to have one-and-a-half-teacher and two-teacher schools where one of the teachers is a permanent fixture, and the other one comes from one of two, three, four or five other villages. Therefore, the argument could no longer be used that four-teacher schools are needed, because one teacher might have a talent for music and one for woodwork and one for metalwork. It would be easier and cheaper to put one teacher in a small car and pay a mileage allowance than to have a big bus to take the kids to the other villages waiting outside the school—a school which will be closed quite soon.

My final point concerns not only Cambridge but most of the country. I have read, as far as one is able to read, the report of the Under-Secretary on 16 to 19-year-olds. Education must involve planning. My schools and my education authority are extraordinarily keen to be able to plan education for 16 to 19-year-olds. I hope that in the near future, instead of having a blancmange-like report which leaves all options open, genuine guidance will come from the Department in order to help the whole county.

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

I served with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) on the 1976 Education Bill Standing Committee, where his sense of humour in the late hours of the day and in the early hours of the morning made that Committee more pleasurable for those who were there. I know of his concern for education. He was the education spokesman for his party when I first became a Member of the House. I know of his continued concern, because of the number of his questions that arrive on my desk from time to time.

Before answering the hon. Gentleman's points—I agree fully with some of them, and shall comment broadly on others—I shall make a splendid beginning, with all guns firing. The hon. Gentleman referred to the pupil-teacher ratio. It is worth reminding the House and the parties represented here—the Conservative and Liberal parties at the moment—that in January last year we had the lowest ever pupil-teacher ratio, of 18.7. We shall be surprised if it is much different this year.

On forward planning, we are still working on a presumption that the ratio will be about 18.7 If we made a table of the lowest pupil-teacher ratios compared with standards achieved—I know the difficulties of testing such standards, but I shall take O and A-levels or CSEs as an example—there would be no relationship at all.

London, which spends more per child than anywhere else and has a low pupil-teacher ratio, has half the average ratio of the country in 0-levels. The calibre of the teachers matters. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on that point. We must use the opportunities that are available to raise the calibre of the teachers when we recruit.

The hon. Member said that he preferred blackboards to guns. I do not disagree with him. However, sometimes we require guns to allow us to write what we want on the blackboards. Blackboards can be used for total indoctrination as well as for true learning. The guns are for the protection of the blackboards that the hon. Gentleman and I desire to continue in our society.

I turn next to community colleges, specifically in the area of Cambridge. I was privileged to visit those colleges when I was last in residence, in 1964, at Corpus Christi, and I was much impressed with them. I think that Lord qutler said that they were a lovely and gracious experiment. The way in which they continue further education, uniting age groups, is an excellent achievement.

I can claim some interest in the constituency of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely—and not only from speaking there twice at the last general election, obviously to little purpose. My forebears on my father's side lived in that constituency for many years, until the Industrial Revolution, when they went to Lancashire on the Grand Union Canal, with their cattle and pigs. Our houses in Haslingden are still named after villages like Wimelington, which I discover when I visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Last night we had a debate on village schools. There is concern about the continuance of these schools. We accept that where a village school can be kept open on economic and education grounds that should happen. the emphasis seems to be on having to prove that it is financially or educationally disadvantageous to close a school in order to save it. As the hon. member recognised, some schools become unviable. The birth rate is falling by about 29 per cent. Last night we had an argument about when the first census was held. It was in 1801. I said that it was 1811 and one of my hon. Friends said that it was 1841. I was nearer, and I got the prize. One does not need to get 100 per cent. for a first-class degree, and I achieved a 75 per cent. mark. The last census showed the biggest fall in the birth rate since censuses were first held.

In 1976 there were 4–8 million children in primary schools, and by 1986 the figure is expected to be 3.4 million. In secondary schools this year there will be 4.1 million children. In 1991 that figure will be down to 2.9 million. That is a traumatic drop.

It must be appreciated that the Government do not close schools. It is a national system, locally administered, and we can disagree with what the local authorities do. The decision, however, rests with them. We find that the small schools that are being closed are located in the inner cities. The depopulation of those areas is heavier than the depopulation of villages.

Since the village school is part of the life of a village, with teachers serving for long periods, they should be kept open when that is possible. Until I was 11 years of age I went to a Church of England primary school on the Lancashire hills. The basic subjects were well taught. There were plenty of fields in which to play, with fighting and wrestling. It was a healthy environment. The local authorities are under pressure from the Government, who, in turn, are under financial pressure to balance the economy. With the financial run-over of the next three or four years we expect that about 750,000 school places will have to be taken our of use if the authorities are to work within their limits. It costs about £15 million a year in heating and lighting for every 100,000 places kept in being.

We do not say that all village schools should stay, or that all should go. Each case must he looked at on its merits. If it is economically viable and educationally successful, the school should remain, but if it does not meet those criteria it will have to be looked at by the local authority concerned.

Children are not born at the age of 5. If one is thinking of closing a school, one must have consultation long before the appropriate order is made. The first requirement is genuine—not artificial—consultation with parents and teachers.

Mr. Freud

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he must realise that the moment that the first consultations regarding a school closure take place, parents in the village will send their children to another school. That is the great danger.

Dr. Boyson

I am aware of that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) raised that point in yesterday's debate. A blight hangs like a cloud over the school. But it is the chicken-and-egg syndrome. If a local authority did not consult, the hon. Member for Isle of Ely and I would be the first to complain. We agree that consultation must be genuine. If local people bring forward alternative proposals, they must be considered. Parents are concerned about their children and the continuation of the way of life of their village.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) spoke with great feeling, and I share much of his concern. However, on the question of handling school closures sensitively I should put on record the experience in my constituency in Cambridgeshire. The education committee, and particularly the chairman, John Horrell, and the vice-chairman, Mrs. Emily Blatch, have handled most sensitively the cases in which there has been the possibility of a school closure—against great cash difficulties, because of the rate support grant.

Dr. Boyson

I am grateful for that intervention. I know John Horrell and his vice-chairman and I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's comments are passed on to them. There will be pleasure in Cambridgeshire at the statements that have been made in the Chamber.

Under section 12 of the Education Act 1980 an order made for the closure of a school must be circulated and posted in a public place. Local people have two months in which to object and the local authority has another month in which to collect the objections and send them to the Secretary of State with its observations. It is not a hurried process.

I have seen many such cases go through in the past year and I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State considers with great care the objections made by local people and those that are often made in the House.

I know how carefully my noble Friend the Minister of State examines such cases and the amount of time that she spends on them. It is often difficult to come down on one side or the other. Some areas must cut back and it is difficult to decide which schools should be closed.

Some years ago a plan for Wisbech collapsed, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely. The hon. Gentleman made certain generalities that I do not necessarily agree with. He would be surprised if I agreed with him, because I tend to be a reactionary on certain matters. I thought at one stage that I saw the hon. Gentleman reading Conservative Party literature. When he stood up I waited for a great announcement. One never knows what will happen these days, with "Gangs of Three" and "Gangs of Four" and surreptitious reading of Conservative Party literature on the Liberal Bench. That shows the hon. Gentleman's breadth of thought. We shall follow his intellectual consideration of the literature with interest.

Mr. Freud

It shows more the carelessness of the posting methods of the Conservative Party. It arrived in the postbox of one of my hon. Friends.

Dr. Boyson

That shows how desirous we are of spreading our bread widely on the waters, never knowing what return it may bring in the future.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Some of my hon. Friends and I received a letter from the leader of the Liberal Party only a few days ago. Those things are happening in all directions.

Dr. Boyson

I never receive letters like that. Everyone else is being offered transfers, and if they are as rewarding as football transfers it is no wonder. However, at present hon. Members are not moving as quickly as football managers. I put on record the fact that none of these goodies are coming my way.

I would not dismiss single-sex education at the secondary level as easily as the hon. Gentleman does; nor would many parents in this country. Secondly, I do not see any link between the question whether education is selective or non-selective and the degree of crime in an area. It seemed that Wisbech had a heavy crime rate because it had selective education. There is much crime in Wembley, but in Brent, North we have a totally nonselective system, so I could then say that crime in Brent. North arises from a non-selective system. I had not thought of saying that before, and I would not say it. The hon. Gentleman's views are not entirely the same as mine, but we each hold them strongly.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely mentioned the question of intervening. There is no prospect of the Government's intervening in Wisbech. We have given power to the local education authorities. There are many different systems in the country. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that variety and experimentation are good. The community colleges and the Leicester scheme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, were experiments. One such scheme was introduced in Waltham Forest when I was there. I would hate there to be one scheme only throughout the country. Variety is a good sign of a free and healthy society, in which the hon. Gentleman and I believe.

If the local authority wishes to do something differently, it can put up its scheme, which will then be considered by the Government.

Mr. Freud

The local education authority put up a scheme that was in the process of implementation when the governors of the voluntary-aided school found that they had the means to defy the local education authority. The whole county is on one side and the school is on the other.

Dr. Boyson

That situation is like Jack and the Beanstalk or, more aptly, David and Goliath. As a Government we can act only on schemes that are put before us by local authorities.

The hon. Member for Isle of Ely mentioned three points at the end of his speech. I shall not refer to the 16 to 19-year-olds, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) wishes to raise another matter later, so I shall not take up time with that now. It is a debate by itself.

The first question raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely concerned the appointment of governors. It is wrong to appoint one governor to a whole bevy of schools. The appointment is sometimes regarded as a local honours list, or a Cadbury's dairy milk medal. A man who does not get on to the council may be appointed a school governor. However, in some instances it is useful to have the run-through from infant school, junior school and secondary school. Being a school governor is a serious job. The appointment should not be handed out as an honour, or awarded for political service.

The second point concerned teacher mobility. I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's views and will see that they are passed to the Department and to the local area. Small children, particularly, should not be moved unnecessarily. It is easier and cheaper to move an adult. It requires only a car allowance. In addition, a large coach with a lot of children may involve a long time travelling, and may be subject to bad weather. The peripatetic teacher can bring variety to a school, like part-time teachers in small schools, without extra cost.

One cannot keep village schools open at a capitation cost far higher than in the towns. It would mean that they were existing at the expense of the towns. However, a school with about 30 or 35 pupils, with one or one and a half regular teachers and a number of part-timers, is viable. The wife of the local vicar is often a trained teacher and others can come to teach music and other specialties, which can put life back into a village school without the large expense of full-time teachers.

The hon. Gentleman sensibly took the matter further by asking whether the principle could be extended to other schools. In certain sixth forms in London that is now the practice. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention my time at Highbury Grove. Staff can move between schools and travel round like missionaries, shaking the dust off their feet.

It has been a pleasure to reply to the hon. Gentleman. I have been able to state our view on village schools and pay respect to the community college. I have also outlined the pupil-teacher ratio. I reiterate that governors appointed should be committed to serve their school faithfully and well. The appointment should not be made as a token office. My final point is that at a time of falling rolls and limited finance, local authorities should be encouraged to adopt flexible schemes, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman, to maintain standards and to keep certain schools open that would otherwise have to shut.