HC Deb 26 January 1982 vol 16 cc860-8

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

11.49 pm
Mr. John Ward (Poole)

I am grateful to the House and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for giving me this opportunity to initiate a short debate on educational reorganisation in the county of Dorset.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that, with regard to education, the county of Dorset is in turmoil. The matters of great concern can be easily divided. On the one hand there are the plans prepared by local education committees for the probable closure of many rural schools and on the other hand there are the outlined plans for the reorganisation of education in the urban conurbation, which covers Christchurch, Bournemouth and my constituency of Poole.

Of the rural school argument I wish to say little because it does not directly affect my constituency. One cannot help but observe the real concern and distress that has been caused to those who are affected. Those responsible at county hall seem unable to understand that the village school is usually the heart of any small rural community. The removal of a well-loved and well-run school can bring harm to the community well beyond the inconvenience caused to parents in transporting their young children to a more distant school. Even if small schools have limits to what they can provide beyond the three "Rs'' in academic matters, few would argue that they offer a quality of life to their pupils that must be set in the scale when their smallness, which enables them to give a personal service, is used as an argument for their destruction.

However, it is on the proposals for schools in my constituency that I wish to concentrate. We can all understand the need to reduce surplus school places, as school rolls fall. Provided that that is done after meaningful consultation and with compassion, such a reduction can be achieved, but some caution is needed, firstly, because the reduction in demand for school places in Dorset is well below the national average. Secondly, Poole is a rapidly expanding town, with a relatively young population. The removal of places will be uneconomic if they have to be restored in a few years' time. Thirdly, the costings of the various schemes must be examined objectively.

Some of the unit costs quoted locally make me wonder whether some costs have been exaggerated. The reasoning is difficult to follow. Many of us also cannot see the logic of reducing the size of the grammar schools, or of combining them to reduce their total intake. If the school rolls are falling—in Poole that is increasingly doubtful—there is an opportunity to give more of those who wish to take it, the advantage of a grammar school education.

At the centre of my plea to the House is the point that we do not wish to see wholesale change in the education system in Poole. We are served by many good schools run by dedicated staff. At the centre of our schools are the two grammar schools. Parkstone grammar school provides for girls and Poole grammar school for Boys. They have a record of academic excellence that is the envy of many an education authority.

The Parkstone grammar school was founded 76 years ago, with 14 pupils. It now has nearly 800 girls, including a sixth form of 276, which includes 54 girls transferred at sixth form stage to the grammar school from other secondary schools. At the grammar school, advantage is taken of the greater range of O and A-level courses run at Parkstone. The pass rate for both O and A-levels is generally well over 80 per cent. The school raises large sums of money for charity. It has representatives in several England schoolgirl sporting events and has a record of success ranging from music to safe cycling contests.

Three girls have gained places at Oxford university, another has secured a Plessey scholarship for a degree in computer studies and yet another has secured one of the national engineering training board awards for her degree in mechanical engineering at Loughborough university.

Poole grammar school caters for 770 boys, including 283 sixth formers, one-third of whom have joined the sixth form from other secondary schools. The pass level in both A and O-levels was over 80 per cent. last year. All O-level candidates sit at least eight subjects. There is a full range of extra-curricular activities. In sport the school has several internationals among its present pupils. For the second year in succession the school has gained the three top prizes in the sixth form section of the Abbey Life essay competition. Thirteen of the present sixth form can be expected to gain places at Oxford or Cambridge universities this year. Our grammar schools are centres of excellence. We are proud of them. Both schools enjoy good relations with the other secondary schools in the borough, which send increasing numbers of their students to take advantage of the additional facilities at sixth form level.

This is an education system that is working well. It is not surprising that many of my constituents have made representations to me that it should be allowed to continue in its present form. Like many parents, I feel that there have been too many changes and experiments in education over recent years. Scarcely have parents and pupils adapted to one scheme than another trendy idea is thrust upon them. This makes interesting material no doubt for the educational psychologists, but we parents can perhaps be forgiven if we prefer the trusted and tried methods of some years ago. There is little evidence that better results in basic education have been achieved by all the experimentation.

Although Dorset county council was one of the first, in 1979, to withdraw the proposals for comprehensive education that it was forced to submit under the Education Act 1976, there is a feeling in Dorset that a group at county hall is determined to see the ending of grammar school education in the county. Little by little, the grammar schools have been whittled away until only the four in Bournemouth and Poole remain. I sympathise with a Poole representative on the county council who said that there was a strong feeling in Poole that the very elaborate and careful consultation exercise which had been carried out was just a cosmetic exercise. I believe that the councillor had cause for concern. It was an exercise that largely ignored those who do not yet have children at school and moved the Poole borough council to pass a resolution stating that: this Council instructs the Town Clerk to write to the Clerk of the Dorset County Council pointing out that the consultation exercise in respect of the proposed reorganisation of secondary education in Poole has been directed solely to governors and managers of schools, teachers and parents of children in the school system but that no comprehensive attempt has been made to obtain the views of the people who are most likely to be affected by any reorganisation, namely the parents of children not yet in school. This Council appreciates the difficulty the Dorset County Council would have in extending the consultation exercise to embrace all persons likely to be affected in the near and medium term future, but in view of the fact that all members of the District Council have, in one capacity or another, been loosely involved in the consultation exercise, and that they are all familiar with the many points of view being currently expressed, the County Council is invited to request the District Council to express a view on the current proposals on behalf of the large number of people in Poole who have not yet had any opportunity of expressing their views. The House may find it surprising that the county council had to be reminded by Poole borough council of such an elementary matter. My hon. Friend, the Minister and I both campaigned at the last general election on the need for parental choice in education, and I am sure that we are both agreed that no nation can afford to hold back its brightest young people.

The attitude of many of my constituents to the proposal to remove or reduce in size the grammar schools is illustrated by one who wrote to me saying: It is in utter disbelief that I write this letter after reading, not once but three times, the report in the Evening Echo concerning the last meeting of the Education Committee. Are you really contemplating abolishing our Grammar School? Surely, a Conservative controlled Council is not going to do what a Labour Government failed to do. Or again: One of the considerations which made me vote Conservative at the last General Election was that 1 understood Mrs. Thatcher did not agree with a wholly comprehensive education system and wanted to give parents as much choice as possible in the type of education required for their children. I agree with both of those constituents. It is generally accepted that the effective decision regarding the future of education in the Poole and Bournemouth area will be taken at a schools sub-committee of the county education committee meeting on 22 February. I very much regret that, in spite of the efforts of some councillors, the decision will be taken at a meeting that will be held in private. I very much agree with those councillors who believe that this meeting should be held in public.

As I have shown, this is an emotive subject and there is real concern that administrative convenience and education theory will over-rule the wishes of those who showed by their votes at the last general election that they wanted choice in education.

If there is a good argument for all this potential upheaval and uncertainty and a good case for destroying good and proven grammar schools, it will stand up to the most searching examination in public. If decisions are made behind closed doors, it will feed the suspicion that there is a group that is determined to impose its will on the electorate and introduce a comprehensive system.

The headmistress of Parkstone grammar school said it all so much better than I am able to in one of her speech day reports: In view of the discussion now taking place in the area with the possibility of altering the whole system of secondary education we should consider what will be lost. Both grammar schools are of high quality—the results you have heard about today reflect this—both schools enjoy exceptionally good relations with the other secondary schools in the Borough. They are happy to send increasing numbers of their students to us at Sixth Form level. Because boys and girls of ability in significant numbers come to them they can offer a full range of O and C.S.E. courses and the results achieved in our general secondary schools complement those achieved in the grammar schools and enable these students to proceed to further education here or elsewhere. I have very much admired the remedial work done in our general secondary schools with less able pupils—it is a special skill calling for patience and expertise—it is a skill I do not have, nor do many of my colleagues here, and we are very ready to acknowledge this. What I find more difficult to get others to acknowledge is that there is also an expertise associated with educating the most able of our students. It is a skill that we have here, associated with highly qualified, academic staff and with their experience gained often over years teaching able girls, of what is required in encouraging habits of hard work, persuading girls of this level of ability to realise their potential. I hope I do not sound complacent—our success rate is not 100 per cent. in examinations, not every girl is totally enthusiastic about what the school has to offer or what it stands for, we do not always find the right approach to every one of our students—what institution could claim that it is always successful? Yet the thanks we receive from parents and girls, the letters that come from many after they leave do encourage us to feel that a tremendous amount of good work is done here. I hope we shall be able to continue this. In a recent debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), the Under-Secretary of State indicated that one of the most prominent factors that the Secretary of State would consider if an appeal were to be made to him was the need to retain what had proved its worth in the existing system of secondary education. He went on to say that the Secretary of State would not normally approve proposals that would result in the closure or a significant change in the character of schools that had demonstrated their success in providing for sixth form education and which, in his judgment, should continue to do so.

The attention that this debate will receive and the representations made earlier by my right hon. and hon. Friends may yet persuade Dorset county council that, in even considering the closure of the remaining grammar schools in Dorset, it has embarked on a course that is unacceptable to the people of Bournemouth and Poole and that there are better methods of effecting any necessary economies.

Finally, should the county council attempt to close the grammar schools in Poole, we shall seek the protection of the Secretary of State and are confident that he will not see an excellent education system destroyed.

12.3 am

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) for raising this subject, not only because the way in which schools are organised in any area is a matter of considerable importance, but also because it raises matters of importance throughout the rest of the country.

I realise from my hon. Friend's quotations of constituents and head teachers in his area how closely he is in touch with his constituency. I know how highly he is respected as a Member.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being born in a vintage year, the year in which I was born. I am not surprised by his effectiveness and his contact with everyone in the constituency. He was educated in a county technical school, a type of school that has disappeared. Such schools tried to create people for the technical age that we are moving into.

My hon. Friend then went to the univeristy of St. Andrew's, which commends itself to me, as I am the president of the Conservatives there. It may be that my hon. Friend laid the foundations for its strong Conservative association. When I go there for the annual dinner, little do I realise that it is to him that I owe such a great organisation.

My hon. Friend fell slightly by the wayside after that. You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, must sympathise with him, in that he joined the Royal Air Force instead of the Royal Navy, though I realise the necessity for the RAF and am the last to condemn the requirements of the other Services. However, my hon. Friend would have been even more powerful, and this country would have been different, if he had joined me in the Royal Navy. Our friendship would not have had to wait so long to begin, until he entered the House.

Village schools were mentioned by my hon. Friend. I went to a village school myself. Despite coming from a strong Methodist family—I believe that you have similar religious connections, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I went to the small Church of England school, and it seemed to do me no harm. I learnt the 39 Articles, and that did me no harm. I always believed that we had an extra day's holiday on Ash Wednesday. That almost attracted me to the Church of England, which I joined later, when I was in the Royal Navy—like John Wesley, to bridge both worlds.

It was good to hear my hon. Friend commend the work done in the grammar schools and the old schools in his constituency, just as a headmistress commended the remedial work done elsewhere.

Becasue I was so impressed by my hon. Friend's speech, I feel that before long I must speak in his constituency. I shall not be surprised if I do so before many weeks pass. Just as I listened to him tonight, he will have to listen to me then.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a long history to the current discussion of the reorganisation of secondary education in the Bournemouth and Poole areas. The 1976 Education Act was a typical example of the Labour Party's dogmatic approach. It is clear that Labour hon. Members are ashamed of it, as their absence shows. They are wearing sackcloth and ashes, feeling sorry for what was done in that Act.

The Act was a typical example of the Labour Party's dogmatic attitude to complex matters. It compelled local education authorities to submit schemes for comprehensive reorganisation, whether or not local people thought that comprehensive schools were right for their area, and whether or not local geography and existing school buildings meant that a comprehensive system was practicable.

I have served as the head of grammar, secondary modern and comprehensive schools. It is a question of having the right schools for the right area, depending on the circumstances, and then checking what they achieve. I am proud to have been a member of the Conservative Government who, as one of their first actions on taking office, put on the statute book the 1979 Education Act, which enabled those LEAs that had been forced against their will to submit proposals for comprehensive reorganisation to withdraw those proposals. What we were saying in effect was, "It is not part of the duty of central Government to impose a single form of organisation on every part of the country. There must be scope for flexibility, to respond to the different needs of different areas." That is part of the Conservative Party's political creed.

It is from diversity that strength comes. The only way to build a dry stone wall is to have different shaped stones. Both my grandfathers were farmers, and they taught me that. That is when I began to believe in the free society and the variety of people. Just as one needs a variety of stones to build a good stone wall, to build a powerful society one needs people with all kinds of talents to develop it to the full. We do not want everyone to be alike.

The Dorset county council was one of the local education authorities compelled under the 1976 Act to submit comprehensive proposals for Bournemouth and Poole. It did so in 1978, and was able to take advantage of the 1979 Act to withdraw them.

However, in common with almost all authorities, Dorset is faced with falling pupil numbers over the next decade. I understand that in Bournemouth—we have debated this previously—secondary pupil numbers are projected to decline from about 8,900 in January 1980 to 6,400 by 1990. That is a fall of about 30 per cent. It will mean that there will be about 2,400 spare places in secondary schools in Bournemouth. The situation in Poole is similar, with secondary school population numbers falling from about 6,300 in January 1980 to 5, 100 over the decade, which would leave 1,200 spare places. I also agree with my hon. Friend that the decline in the number of children coming through is less here than in the remainder of the country.

Faced with a fall in numbers of this order, Dorset has decided to look at the options which are open to it for organising secondary provision in ways which will make better use of the resources available. It has issued a consultation paper and held a series of public meetings to discuss the various possibilities. I understand that the council expects to be considering the results of the consultation process from April. It does not see any possibility of changes to the organisation of secondary schools in either Bournemouth or Poole being implemented before 1986. Many things may happen before then, such as general elections. In four years we may have another Adjournment debate.

My hon. Friend may find it helpful if I explain the statutory procedures which Dorset would have to go through if it wished to change the existing pattern of provision. The procedures are laid down in the Education Act 1980. They are designed to ensure that no local education authority can simply ride rough-shod over the wishes of local people.

If an LEA proposes to establish, close or significantly change the character of a maintained school, it must publish proposals to that effect and submit them to my right hon. Friend. Once it has done so, there is a two-month period during which objections to the proposals may be submitted. A statutory objection is one made by 10 local electors, by the governors of a voluntary school affected by the proposals or by any other local education authority concerned. If objections are received, the proposals automatically fall to be decided by the Secretary of State. He may in any case call proposals in for his decision if that seems appropriate. All voluntary school proposals are decided by the Secretary of State.

That should make clear to my hon. Friend why I cannot comment in detail on the options being canvassed by Dorset. If it decides to proceed with the reorganisation proposals for Bournemouth and Poole, it is likely that, one way or another, the proposals will come to the Secretary of State for decision. My hon. Friend may even have hinted at that. My right hon. Friend therefore has a quasi-judicial role in the process. I have to take care not to seem to be prejudicing his decision by comments that I offer this evening.

However, I believe that my hon. Friend may find it helpful if I say something about the considerations that the Secretary of State bears in mind when reaching a decision on proposals for secondary reorganisation. In the first place, we recognise the tremendous difficulties presented by the sharp fall in the number of pupils. Many authorities simply find themselves with too many schools. Indeed, we estimate that it costs £100 per head to keep empty places in schools for heating, lighting and maintenance.

If we leave things as they are, we may find in some cases that classrooms are half-empty, teaching groups are uneconomically small and schools with few pupils cannot afford sufficient teachers to offer a balanced curriculum with a sufficient range of speciallised subjects, such as the sciences and modern languages. Rationalising provision by removing places surplus to present requirements therefore offers an opportunity to maintain the quality of education in two ways—by making it easier to protect the broad curricullum which we wish to see—and by releasing scarce resources which can be better used on books and teachers than on heating, lighting, cleaning and maintaining half-empty buildings. The Government said as much in a circular which we issued to LEAs last June.

However, the purpose of any reorganisation which flows from this process must be to ensure that existing educational opportunities are maintained, and, if possible, improved. There have been too many examples in the past of good—even excellent—schools being destroyed for the sake of an apparent rationalisation or the uniformity of provision. A school can be destroyed overnight, but it takes a long time for a successful school to be built up. Too often, the hopes and claims for the advantages of the new system have not been realised, and the net effect of some reorganisation schemes has been to reduce opportunity. My hon. Friend referred to the many changes in education over the past 20 years which did not meet the claims made for them before they were brought in.

For this reason, the Department is in the process of consultation on a draft circular setting out for authorities three policies which the Secretary of State will particularly take into account from now on. Most prominent among them is the need to retain what has proved its worth within the existing system of secondary education. The Secretary of State will not normally approve proposals which would result in the closure or a significant change in the character of schools which have demonstrated their success in the provision that they make for sixth form education, and which in his judgment can continue to do so. The exception that we make is where the prima facie case for retaining such a school is overwhelmed by other compelling educational considerations.

The draft circular also makes clear the Secretary of State's view that proposals should have particular regard to parental preference, on religious or other grounds, for maintaining opportunities for the education of pupils in single sex schools where it is obvious that there is parental demand. Finally, it emphasises the need to allow sufficient time for proposals to be implemented. We are thinking not only of those pupils who will experience the reorganised system when it is fully in operation, but also of those caught up in the process of reorganisition. It is vital that LEAs plan to avoid disruption to those pupils' education. We are very concerned about parental choice of school, and we campaigned in the general election on parental choice of school. It is something in which my hon. Friend and I totally believe. Parents in the area give a vote of confidence or no confidence in the school. After all, the parents are risking the lifetime of their own children; they are not experimenting with other people's children. It is their children who are going to the school.

A copy of the draft circular has been placed in the Library if my hon. Friend is interested to look at it—not necessarily tonight, but at some future time—and we have asked for comments from interested bodies by the end of this month.

Naturally, the Secretary of State looks very carefully at all proposals which come before him, and the policies that I have just mentioned are taken into account along with a detailed study of the educational, financial and social implications of the proposals, before he decides whether to approve them, with or without modification. We also pay a great deal of attention to any points made by objectors. Indeed, there was a certain amount of objection in what my hon. Friend said tonight. After all, they are local people who will be affected by the proposals: not only do they have a right to be heard—my hon. Friend will know that I spend much of my life meeting deputations concerned about particular proposals—but also they are likely to offer valuable insights into the effects of the proposals, and difficulties that may not be obvious at first sight.

In the end, however, the Secretary of State has to balance against each other the advantages and disadvantages of proposals. These are rarely as clear-cut as one would like, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State would not approve any proposals which he was convinced would be to the educational disadvantage of the children concerned.

I hope that what I have said this evening will have been helpful to my hon. Friend and to his constituents, and that he will have been reassured as to the care which we will take in looking at any proposals which may come before us from his area or from any other area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.