HC Deb 21 October 1986 vol 102 cc1124-30
Mr. Spearing

I beg to move Amendment No. 224, in. page 60, line 25, leave out clause 54.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 225, in schedule 6, page 81, line 11, leave out column 3.

Mr. Spearing

I regret that I cannot be brief in moving this amendment, for reasons which will emerge in the course of my remarks. [Interruption.] I see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), saying from a sedentary position that I never am brief. Other hon. Members will know that often I am brief. However, I make no excuse for not being brief on this occasion, and the Minister, whose grace is less apparent than his intellect, may understand why when I speak about what he said in Committee.

The Report stage gives hon. Members with knowledge of these matters an opportunity to speak to the whole House, and for the Minister not to recognise that, having been in the House representing the people of Dartford for many years, is reprehensible, and I shall say no more on that topic.

The clause seeks to delete sections 4 and 5 of the Education Act 1944. I am concerned particularly with section 4, because it established central advisory councils for England and Wales. The 1944 Act was one of the most important bipartisan measures to pass through Parliament in the last 50 years. It laid the foundations of the post-war education system, which might be better than it is; this Bill would not be before us were there not serious concerns about education today.

That Act exemplified a great deal about education because education requires consent at every level, from Elizabeth house, where the Minister sits with his advisers, to every classroom in the country. Indeed, if I were giving priority, I would start with the classroom and end with Queen Elizabeth house.

The quality of our education system depends a great deal on the quality with which it is managed and discussed, both here and in Elizabeth house, and the status we give it in terms of public affairs. I make no apology for making that point because the whole of the 1944 Act was bipartisan, dealing with public affairs rather than politics.

An unfortunate trade mark of the present Government is that they seem to equate public affairs with anything to do with the state and do not put a ring fence around certain parts of it which are important to the quality of public life. One of the greatest problems in public life, which we all share—Dartford and Newham, Kingston and Durham—is that too infrequently—

Mrs. Rumbold

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I represent the constituency of Mitcham and Morden.

3.30 am
Mr. Spearing

I apologise to the hon. Lady. Her constituency is a borough within the general area to which I referred.

I hope that the Minister would agree that one of the problems in our national life, which is universal in all institutions whether they be public, private or parliamentary—and that includes all political parties—is that we are too unwilling to consult people who have knowledge and experience before we take decisions. Time and again we complain about the malaise in public life or in the public affairs of the nation. Almost without exception, if one considers the consultative procedures and the way in which we gather experience and place that at everyone's disposal—which is, after all, one of the central features of our Parliamentary democracy — we find something wanting.

If we were to mention to those who make a serious study of education or, better still, to those who have served in education for a long time the names Hadow, Spens, Crowther, Newsom and Plowden, they would mean a great deal. I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding his head in agreement with that. These were the nicknames of reports—named after the chairmen—of the central advisory councils which the Bill now seeks to abolish.

One of the features of these councils is their professionalism. They have a wide acceptance. On the whole, Parliament and successive Ministers of Education accepted them and, by and large, they were implemented. Not everyone agreed with them and I did not necessarily agree with everything that they said but they were able to bring a wide consensus into legislation and educational practice.

I will now explain why I cannot be brief. For 14 years before I was elected to the House I was a teacher in a classroom. I had no guarantee of being elected, it was merely chance as is the case with most hon. Members. But for that chance, I might still be in the classroom. I will not let this unique opportunity pass. I want to keep faith with what I was doing for 14 years, grappling with the central problems of secondary education, problems which are now looming large in national life and with which people are trying to deal. I want to keep faith with those in the classrooms at the moment. Hon. Members probably have no idea of the degree of mental and physical strain which is now apparant in our schools.

To understand these problems, one must experience teaching. I suggest that one should not experience it for a year or a week or two. Rather one should witness several rounds of the process. A round is not one year, it is the period in which a pupil passes through a school. It is really at least five years.

The central advisory councils were, by universal consent, useful. Why will they not be useful in future? My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) asked the Minister during the Committee proceedings of the Bill why the councils should be done away with. The Minister replied that to accept my hon. Friend's argument he would have to behave in contrary fashion to the undertaking that the Government gave in their response to the Second Report of the Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts during the 1981–82 Session." — [Official Report, Standing Committee B, 8 July 1986; c. 585.] Select Committees are akin to those educational commissions, because they can gather the experience and wisdom of those who have spent a lifetime's experience in various areas. That is one of their great irrigating factors.

The Minister said, "We gave an undertaking." That sounds as though it was in response to a recommendation, but the Committee's recommendation was not that the councils should be abolished. Indeed, it was to the contrary. It recommended that the central advisory councils should be reconstituted because, We are … persuaded of the need for a body which can determine policy and set criteria, and we believe that there is a gap in the present arrangements. The technique of handling specific issues more generally within the education system by the appointment of committees or single individuals to conduct inquiries, while it has its uses, makes for discontinuity and uncertainty, and is also potentially open to abuse by a Secretary of State who wished to disguise a political decision by the appointments of committees or individuals who could be relied upon to support his view. (We should emphasise at once that we have no evidence that such a tactic has ever been used by a Secretary of State, but we wish to draw attention to the danger.) We see the need for more permanent bodies which can meet continuously, develop ways of working, and to which issues of many different kinds can be referred. We believe there is a need for permanent Central Advisory Councils which could advise, among other things, on examinations policy, and we have already made recommendations which would give the reconstituted Councils power to determine national criteria and to provide continuing guidance in examinations policy. That could almost have come from the Committee stage of the Education Act 1944, which I recommend the Minister and all interested Members to read. It is perfectly in line with the spirit which set up the central advisory councils and for which Mr. Rab Butler obtained universal support in the House. Moreover, section 5 of the Act said that there should be an annual report to Parliament on the proceedings of the central advisory councils, because they would retain some broad remit.

In answer to the Select Committee's recommendations, we had what the Minister called in Committee an undertaking. It was not an undertaking at all. It was slapped down. In his second response to that Select Committee report, which is Cmnd. 8648 of 1981–82, he said: Successive Secretaries of State have continued to value the contribution of informed outside opinion on a wide range of policy matters over the 15 year period since the last Central Advisory Council reports were published. Their approach has been to charge committees of inquiry or independent individuals specific remits, an approach which has the advantage that the constitution and duration of inquiries can be matched to the specific matters on which the Secretary of State is seeking advice … The Government believe that this approach has worked well and have concluded that there is no need for separate and permanent Central Advisory Councils: they will therefore take the first legislative opportunity which presents itself to repeal Section 4 of the Education Act 1944. That is where we are now. In the meantime, there was a duty on the Secretary of State or Minister of State for Education of the day to appoint those councils, because Parliament had said that they should exist. No doubt the 1944 Parliament, in its wisdom, made the very same case that the Select Committee made in 1981–82. Had that central advisory council been sitting in continuous session with a revolving membership, as had been foreseen at the start, and not used for a succession of specific inquiries, some of the problems to which the House has been addressing itself recently in education might have been less difficult to resolve.

I make no party point about the fact that, from about 1967 onwards, successive Ministers refused to appoint central advisory councils. On 22 October 1971, I had an Adjourment debate on this very topic. In that debate I rehearsed some of the points that I have made today.

We must remember that the central advisory councils had an additional specific power. The 1944 Act provides that it shall be the duty of those Councils to advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him. In other words, they could make their own inquiries. They did not have to wait for a reference from the Secretary of State as every successive single advisory committee—about 13 or 15 of them—has had to do. The councils were not entirely creatures of the Secretary of State although they were appointed by him and accountable to him in making reports to Parliament.

Could it be that successive Secretaries of State saw that as an area over which they did not have the control that they would have if they appointed individual committees? That interpretation certainly seems to carry some conviction. It means that over a long period from 1967 until now successive Ministers of all parties have been breaking the law. That was the theme of my Adjournment debate on 22 October 1971, in which the Minister replying was none other than the then Secretary of State for Education and Science—the present Prime Minister.

I had hoped that the then Secretary of State, having broken the law or at any rate not complied with it, on a bi-partisan basis, would either have defended the thesis that the councils were not useful and proposed legislation to put things right or, conversely, that she would consider the points that I had made and perhaps appoint a central advisory council in accordance with the law. The right hon. Lady, however, said no such thing. She said: The background is completely different and it is against this background"— of many advisory committees— that the position of the C.A.C. should be viewed now. Against this background there has developed a tendency on the part of successive Secretaries of State during the past 15 years or more to leave the setting up of C.A.C.s until a major topic arises which only a council of this nature can appropriately deal with." —[Official Report, 22 October 1971; Vol. 823, c. 1197.] That was better than nothing. We had our Crowther and Spens from that, but it would have been far better if the central advisory councils had been meeting permanently as Parliament required and sorting out some of the problems that have arisen in secondary education, drawing on the professional expertise of people with a commitment to that cause. Instead, they were not set up as Parliament required and now they are to disappear altogether. I challenge the Minister replying today to give the real reasons rather than talking about a commitment made to a Select Committee which in fact recommended that the councils should be reconstituted and that the law should be kept.

I close on this. I believe that the then Secretary of State for Education and Science quite possibly simply did not know what she was about. When I raised the matter at Prime Minister's Question Time on 17 July 1984 the right hon. Lady said: I do not think that I was ever taken to task for refusing to obey the law in the Education Act 1944." —[Official Report, 17 July 1984; Vol. 64, c. 168.] It may have been a technicality for the right hon. Lady, but it was not and is not a technicality for people in the classroom because the professional approach of the central advisory councils exemplified the partnership in education.

I spoke earlier of consensus and agreement. Education can thrive only with consent. In this country we have a partnership of central Government, local government and the profession, a partnership of statutory maintained schools and the voluntary sector. Only if those with wisdom and experience come together in an atmosphere of trusteeship of our national heritage in education will our education system work properly. The central advisory councils irrigated, permitted and encouraged that partnership, but now they are to be destroyed.

3.45 am
Mr. Dunn

I do not wish to detain the House overlong, but the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has made a number of contentious points which need answering for the record and for history. He mentioned the bipartisan approach that we have had to education in Britain since 1944. I do not recollect that circular 10/65 was bipartisan. I do not recollect that the Education Act 1976 was bipartisan. I do not recollect that any commitments made by the Labour party about education in future were bipartisan. Far from it.

Mr. Radice


Mr. Dunn

I do give way, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I want to continue.

The hon. Member for Newham, South talks about the 1944 Act being a totem pole at which we all worship, but I am not a blind worshipper of that Act. The hon. Gentleman is much older than I, in terms of service and chronologically, and he will recollect that the 1944 Act had only one golden period of 12 years between 1944 and 1956 when the movement away from the 1944 Act started in the county of Leicestershire with the comprehensivisation of our schools.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Dunn

I shall not give way, because this is a lecture to which the hon. Gentleman must listen.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the 1944 Act came about entirely as a result of the Norwood report of 1938. He knows that the debates in the ensuing six years from 1938 to 1944 were precisely the result of that. Mr. Butler —Lord Butler as he became—only played a role at the end of the parliamentary span of the debate. The 1944 Education Act should really have been called the Ramsbottom Act, but Rab Butler, by his appointment for a few weeks at the end of the passage of the Bill, gave it the name of the Butler Act. Do not let us worship the cant that the hon. Gentleman expressed tonight. He is wordy and erudite, but he is so wrong, both in his interpretation of history and on the bipartisan approach that he claims was brought to education. Anyone who remembers, as I do, the circular 10/65 and the Education Act 1976 cannot agree with a single word that he said.

Mr. Radice

The Minister has stirred me up by being so partisan. Nobody got rid of more grammar schools than the Prime Minister when she was Secretary of State, and in that she was surely following a bipartisan approach.

Mr. Dunn

That may well be the case historically, but I do not want anybody to try to persuade the House that there has been a golden age of bipartisan approach to education. There is not and was not, apart from the 11 years between 1944 and 1955.

The hon. Member for Newham, South has read the proceedings of our Committee stage. I congratulate him. I suspect that he is the only person, other than Committee members, to do so. I am glad that he had the time to do so. But, as he knows, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) probed the Government hard in Committee and we had an interesting debate. But even the hon. Member for Ipswich accepted the logic of our argument and finally capitulated with all the sweet reason that the hon. Gentleman can summon.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, advisory councils have not met and reported for nearly 20 years. He acknowledged that and I shall be fair to him, although I do not like being so in my present mood. The hon. Gentleman talked about the unprofessional nature of some of the advice that we have been given, or he hinted at it. Does he regard the Warnock and Swann reports as unprofessional and not worthwhile? They were not set up under section 4 of the 1944 Act as central advisory councils. They are examples of the ad hoc inquiry which all Governments of recent years—I am sorry that he has not moved on since he was at school—have found the best was of supplementing the advice that we receive within the Department and without from a variety of Standing Committees with specific functions. Of course the membership of those ad hoc committees will vary according to the specific terms of reference. He will remember too that they are quite unlike the central advisory councils whose members had a broad spread of expertise.

I do not want to spend much more time on the archaeology of the advisory councils. It is to no avail. They have given the hon. Gentleman a bit of a whirl tonight. He probably feels better for it. I certainly do not and I urge him not to press the amendment to a vote.

Amendment negatived.

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